Die Verurteilung des Lukullus (The Condemnation of Lucullus) by composer Paul Dessau and librettist Bertolt Brecht was an immediate hit when it premiered in Berlin in October 1951. The opera had had a prolonged gestation, as novella, then radio play and radio opera, and had come up against the full force of the nascent East Germany's Soviet-inspired cultural strictures, with charges of formalism and on being too heavy with anti-military and pro-pacifist sentiment. Somehow, these last qualities survived to colour a particularly political message conveyed through the safety of history. The famously epicurean Roman general Lucullus is judged after death for his actions and in the face of testimonies from the victims of his campaigns and conquests is condemned to spend eternity in oblivion. Given the time it was written, with the Nuremberg Trials fresh in the memory, the subject was pertinent – Lucullus even uses the defence that he was “only following orders”, just one example of pointedness in Brecht's often sardonic and witty text.

Gerhard Siegel (Lukullus), Thorbjörn Björnsson (Sprecher des Totengerichts)
© Martin Sigmund

The opera has been staged (including by Dessau's wife Ruth Berghaus) a number of times in Western Germany over the years, but has only now reached Staatsoper Stuttgart in a new production by feminist directorial collective Hauen und Stechen (which translates as Cut and Thrust). Rather than setting the opera in Ancient Rome, the action is brought forward to the time of its composition in the new GDR and video footage takes us onwards to the separate state's demise 40-odd years later. This arguably removes the universality of the opera's theme, presenting the work as a historical product of 1951 through the hindsight of subsequent decades. Meanwhile the design style adds whole levels of absurdity – the collective admits to the influence of Monty Python – over-egging the satire that is already there in text and music. But it is certainly an extravagant and multi-layered spectacle and does not obscure the musical element.

Gerhard Siegel (Lukullus), Kinderchor der Staatsoper Stuttgart
© Martin Sigmund

Dessau was Brecht's most important collaborator after Kurt Weill and they worked together extensively after their return from the US to Europe after the war. His music is edgier and more wide-ranging than we might expect from the place and time and Lukullus displays many of its different facets. For one thing, Dessau's choice of instruments is brassy and percussive, doing away with upper strings and all woodwinds bar the flutes. There are prominent roles for prepared pianos (most effectively to accompany the chorus of schoolchildren visiting Lucullus' tomb), accordion and, most intriguingly, a trautonium, generally considered the first electric synthesiser and originating in the 1930s.

Gerhard Siegel (Lukullus) and Simon Bailey (Der Totenrichter)
© Martin Sigmund

Presiding over this riot of sound was a conductor with a long association with Stuttgart, Bernhard Kontarsky, who was served by a fine cast of singers. Tenor Gerhard Siegel was the embodiment of the pompous Roman general, who just can't believe he has done anything but good. Apart from the Judge (Simon Bailey), a Narrator (Gina-Lisa Maiwald) and Court Speaker (Martin Gerke), the roles are largely a succession of cameos. The most prestigious was that of Tertullia by renowned Straussian Cheryl Studer, whose function in the plot is to explain to Lucullus the judging process he is about to encounter. But as well as the five lay judges, who each get to ask questions in the hearing, are the characters who appear on Lucullus's celebratory funerary frieze, from his cook Lasus to Roman legionaries, each of whom comes back to bite him with their accusations. Among these Maria Theresa Ullrich's Fishwife and Alina Adamski's Queen stood out with their poignant testimonies. Lucullus may well deserve his place in oblivion, but this fast-moving piece of dazzling music theatre certainly doesn't, nor has it lost its political relevance, as this sometimes frustrating but always committed production highlighted.