Even in the world of opera, Ernst Krenek is far from a household name, but this Austrian composer was one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century, with an output encompassing symphonies, chamber works, ballets and, perhaps most significantly, operas. During his lifetime his works were performed throughout the world at such renowned venues as the Berlin Staatsoper, Hamburg Staatsoper and the Bovard Auditorium in Los Angeles, but today, just 21 years after his death, his works are hardly known and rarely performed.

Angela Liebold (Zweite Dame), Christiane Hossfeld (Erste Dame), Alexander Hajek (Der Narr), Elisabet © Matthias Creutziger
Angela Liebold (Zweite Dame), Christiane Hossfeld (Erste Dame), Alexander Hajek (Der Narr), Elisabet
© Matthias Creutziger

Das geheime Königreich (“The Secret Kingdom”) was written in 1926, and is one of Krenek’s shortest operas, lasting just 50 minutes. It tells the story of an unfortunate king, who has fallen out of favour with his people, and consequently with his wife. The Jester, whose wisdom belies his post, consoles the king, and tells him a curious riddle about the true nature of his kingdom. To give himself time to think he swaps places with the jester, but the jester accidentally loses the king’s crown while gambling with the queen, who then frees the leader of the rebels and plunges the palace into chaos. Out in the forest the leader of the rebels rapes and then murders the queen, while the king stumbles around lost, trying to solve the riddle. Lost, broken and contemplating suicide, he finally solves the riddle, and discovers the true nature of his kingdom.

The Dresden Semperoper’s current production of Das Geheime Königreich, directed by Manfred Weiss, is certainly a strong recommendation for this neglected composer. As with many chamber operas, it invites imaginative staging and creative direction, and the cast and crew here in Dresden really take the opportunity to explore this repertoire in depth. Okarina Peter’s set is minimal but effective, featuring a giant throne in the centre of a black stage. Her costumes are equally imaginative, particularly for the dirty downtrodden chorus, who are a perfect portrayal of the unthinking masses.

The singing is also top-notch. As the king himself, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen cuts an impressive musical figure, fully embodying the hapless, despairing monarch. Canadian baritone Alexander Hajek, playing the jester, is also vocally powerful, and encapsulates the dual nature of this wise comedian perfectly. However, perhaps most impressive is soprano Norma Nahoun, a member of the Semperoper’s young artists programme, playing the queen, who had not only a perfect technique and a beautiful voice but also a gripping dramatic presence. It’s rare for a soprano to have it all, but Nahoun certainly does, and in this role, a technical and dramatic firework display, she gives everything you could hope for and more.

The Giuseppe-Sinopoli-Akademie der Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Mihkel Kütson, delivered Krenek’s unusual score with finesse and navigated his stylistic gear-changes with ease. Achieving balance when the orchestra aren’t in a pit can often pose challenges, both for the orchestra and for the singers, but Kütson kept all the musical elements working perfectly together throughout the performance, without sacrificing any of the music’s immediacy.

This is an impressive production, with wonderful music-making throughout. Krenek’s music makes this somewhat bizarre story engaging and dramatically coherent and the performance from is electric from singers and orchestra alike. This is a must-see for fans of 20th-century opera.