Germany is the land of Regie-Theater, opera in which the director’s vision is paramount, and where that vision frequently contains an alternative tale in a modern setting based on thoughts that the opera has inspired in the director. For my first experience of German opera, I went last night to see Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Komische Oper in Berlin, in a revival of a controversial 2004 production by the Spanish director Calixto Bieito. The Komische Oper is a mid-sized opera house in a style somewhere between art deco and the traditional baroque-and-gilt. Surtitles are on the seat back in front, which lets you choose your language (German and English this year, they’re adding more next season), and helps you to ignore them if that’s your preference. They surtitle the full text, which I far prefer to the abbreviated version often used.

Before talking about the production, a few words about the music, in which the outstanding singing came from Brigitte Geller as Konstanze and Jens Larsen as Osmin. Geller seemed equally at home in any of the startlingly wide range of Mozartian singing styles, from fiery coloratura to plaintive romance, and gave us lovely poise and tonal quality in all of them. Larsen pulled off the difficult trick of being violent, sexually aggressive and thoroughly musical at the same time in a bass role that’s celebratedly demanding, negotiating those low Ds with aplomb. The orchestral playing was crisp, accurate and pacy throughout, although the strings were a little overpowering and I barely heard a woodwind note all night.

But in all honesty, the music isn’t what you come to this production for. Bieito’s conceit moves Die Entführung from the Turkish harem of the thoroughly gracious Bassa Selim and his ineffectual comic sidekick Osmin to a German brothel filled with the worst forms of sexual degradation, in which Selim and Osmin are the depraved and violent taskmasters. And yes, the depravity is all there on stage, from Osmin singing his opening aria and duet with Belmonte bouncing stark naked on a bed, to multiple rape, bondage, a prostitute being murdered on stage and plenty more. According to one article I read, the 2004 production involved hiring real hookers to do the more overt bits.

In this production, Bieito is taking Mozart’s original and grafting onto it a narrative of violent sexual exploitation and power dynamics. The rules seemed to be that the words of any musical numbers were left exactly as in the original libretto (although they could be re-ordered or cut), but that spoken dialogue could be hacked about or replaced at will.

For the first act, I was impressed by how well it worked. There were plenty of occasions in which Bieito found genuine ambiguity in Mozart and Bretzner’s dialogue and interpreted this in a way that thoroughly supported his thesis of Konstanze and Blonde being in thrall to a pair of violent and cynical pimps. The constant presence of scantily clad hookers doing their jobs in the background didn’t particularly affect me one way or the other, and the conceit of Belmonte having to disguise himself as one of the hookers was genuinely entertaining.

About an hour in, however, the cracks started to show as Bieito tried to force the very square peg of a Tarantino-esque shocker into the very round hole of a light-hearted comedy. It started with minor continuity errors (Osmin singing about how the English should lock up their women properly, when Blonde’s line about being a proud Englishwoman had been cut), and got steadily worse as Bieito ratcheted up the on-stage violence in a way that simply didn’t match the words. So the duet Vivat Bacchus in which Pedrillo gets Osmin drunk was replaced by a shooting game in which Osmin is forcing Pedrillo to stand against a wall while he shoots at him - but with no change to the libretto. It actually became comical towards the end when Belmonte sings that he dares not raise his eyes to Konstanze - a somewhat irrelevant comment when they are both sitting on stage blindfolded. Mozart’s joyous ending chorus - a paean to Bassa Selim - is sung as he and Osmin are lying on the stage with bullets through them, so can only be interpreted as sarcastic, and at the end, Konstanze shoots herself, bring the body count to Shakespearean levels.

For some in the audience, the levels of violence were just too strong, and they walked out. The production didn’t have that effect on me, but ultimately, I don’t think it succeeds in its aims. Bieito has a perfectly valid theatrical story to tell, but to my mind, it’s not sufficiently close to the original story of Die Entführung for this to work as an integrated piece of music drama.

So the evening was a fine piece of Mozart music and singing, and an interesting piece of staging, even if one felt a little battered by the end. But the two items didn’t go together. I’d be happy to see a Bieito piece about sexual exploitation - but I’d rather see him do it with a 20th or 21st century libretto and music written for the purpose.