Hindemith’s Cardillac has a plot that resembles more a psychological thriller than an opera. Based on a character out of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s expressionist story Mademoiselle de Scudéri, the opera’s main focus is on Cardillac, a goldsmith of incredible talent and renown who is so obsessed by the beauty of his own work that he secretly (yet unapologetically) kills his Parisian clients to reclaim it. It has a spooky, sinister fascination that both intrigues and horrifies and which is quite successfully expressed in this striking production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf.

Visually, the massive, colourful tableaux and rich textures of the stage design (Rolf Glittenberg) are absolutely striking. Black, slanted building cut-outs and a huge clock (Hoffmannesque indeed) kick off the evening, looking like the black-and-white opening from the graphic-novel film, Sin City. The chorus (which deserves a special shout-out for its efforts, both vocally and theatrically) is clad in black robes, Tim Burton-like white faces with black accents, and hats that are stylized pilgrim bonnets brims combined with cylinder-shaped elongated top-hats, and brandishing large white knives. A massive, lush red curtain frames the following act, where after singing a gorgeous aria, “Die Dame” (Olga Bezsmertna) and her “Kavalier” (Matthias Klink) are amorously united over a stunning gold necklace then, after some seductive shadow-play, brutally murdered by a faceless black figure. Scenes with Tomasz Konieczny's Cardillac are, naturally, completely gilded and feature a massive, beautifully textured burnished gold cupboard against an arching black frame.

The movements of the characters are equally stylized, each having their own visual “tics”. Angela Denoke (Cardillac's daughter) continuously reaches with her arms, shaking them like a silent-movie era diva. Wolfgang Bankl's gold merchant hops about and twitches nearly comically, belying his own not-so-comical fate. The use of dancers, including a child ballerina for the royal daughter, an Igor-like guardian, also worked wonderfully, as did the white-faced and painted (think A Clockwork Orange) briefcase-carrying henchmen underlining the grotesque, fantastical elements that made E.T.A. Hofmann a household name.

Although not universally pleasing, the cast is also well worth hearing. Konieczny cannot seem to miss out on a big role these days at the Haus am Ring, having appeared this season alone as Wotan, Jack Rance, Mandryka and now proving an imposingly maniacal Cardillac. Vocally, Bezmertna is a stand-out, and looked absolutely stunning in her bejeweled headpiece and feathery black dress (costumes by Marianne Glittenberg). The second scene, where she waits for her Kavalier, was musically spectacular (and she does have some of the most beautiful bits to sing in this work), though one hopes her German diction will improve with time.

Denoke had some beautiful moments, in particular the close to her duet with Cardillac, but sounded vocally tired in general, and in an effort perhaps to maintain her legato, she also sacrificed a great deal of text. As a stage figure however, she was a very convincing, desperate daughter and her vocal flutter did not detract from, but instead underscored, her helplessness as she tried to win a modicum of her father’s affection. Klink cut a dashing figure on stage and was vocally very present, though I would prefer not to hear him in roles that require more vocal height or beauty than that of the Kavalier. Herbert Lippert (the Captain) gave an energetic performance but struggled openly with fatigue, while Alexandru Moisiuc (the provost marshal) and Wolfgang Bankl were wonderful, present and solid in their supporting roles.

Michael Boder had the Staatsopernorchester well in hand, and blessedly took his time to pass from cover to cover of the score of this, the first published version of the opera, just over an hour and a half in total length. Boder relished the orchestral interludes, allowing the audience to appreciate Hindemith’s juxtaposition of atonal counterpoint with nearly-tonal, semi-melodic moments but did not sacrifice intensity or drama in doing so.

Though it won’t make anyone’s list of top ten operas of all time, Cardillac is a strong enough work to maintain public interest, as demonstrated not least by how well-attended the opera was on this, the ninth performance of this production. It is more than worth seeing, and in a wash of mediocre productions, it is a breath of fresh air... grotesque, demonic, brilliantly-gilded air.