The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, one of Europe's oldest music festivals, has a spring in its step. That is partly thanks to the arrival of the innovative superintendent Cristiano Chiarot, formerly at Venice's La Fenice, who recently could be spotted about town flogging discounted tickets at newsstands, the latest scheme to bring in a fresh public. The main reason for the buzz about the festival, though, is the recent appointment of Fabio Luisi as Music Director. He relieves Zubin Mehta, previously Music Director for over three decades, and decided to launch his tenure with a title that honours the festival's strong tradition of performing 20th-century works. Hindemith's Cardillac is not performed as often as it ought to be. Here, it had the honour of opening the Maggio's 81st edition.

<i>Cardillac</i> © Michele Borzoni | TerraProject/Contrasto
Cardillac
© Michele Borzoni | TerraProject/Contrasto

And it got a fine delivery in this third performance of the run. The in-house orchestra is perhaps not one of Italy's top-tier bands, but under Luisi it played out of its skin, providing a sound that was clean, precise and, when required, hair-raisingly dramatic. Particularly notable were the translucent strings and limpid winds in the seductive opening to The Lady's nocturnal aria in Act 2 (Jennifer Larmore). And, in the various passages in which the music marches forwards with inexorable drive, Luisi kept a steady foot on the pedal, resisting the temptation to go full throttle (which surely would have dissipated the gradual accumulation of tension created). Moments in which Luisi did let rip were carefully selected, and were all the more exciting for that.

Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann's grisly short story, the opera is a slow-burning thriller. It transports us to 17th-century Paris, where Cardillac, a neurotic goldsmith, has taken up killing his customers and is terrorising the locals. The trick to good performances is to communicate the sense of mystery on which the drama is predicated: while the audience can see what Cardillac is up to, the crowds onstage do not grasp this until the end. And that is where Valerio Binasco's new production falls short. Cardillac's secret pastime is clearly spelled out, via a silent passage in which Cardillac slinks through various rooms of a house seen in cross-section, even before the music fires up.

<i>Cardillac</i> © Michele Borzoni | TerraProject/Contrasto
Cardillac
© Michele Borzoni | TerraProject/Contrasto

Even so, Binasco's realist reading is straightforward and stays mostly out of the way, allowing the score to do most of the emoting. Mainly, the production works inconspicuously, casting a brooding atmosphere in support of the music. Sets suggest a time somewhere near to the 1950s. They are dramatically-lit, and feature assorted rooms within which the action takes place. Harder to place are tall, crumbling edifices with much exposed brickwork. Binasco creates a riot of activity and colour in the tavern scene, here filled with merrymakers in assorted finery. After the crowd turns on Cardillac, piling on top of him and violently beating him, the protagonist's slow death is movingly conveyed.

<i>Cardillac</i> © Michele Borzoni | TerraProject/Contrasto
Cardillac
© Michele Borzoni | TerraProject/Contrasto

Cardillac is never out of the spotlight long, and baritone Martin Gantner, who growled through his text in a rugged tone, gave the role a powerful reading. He sounded especially splenetic when pondering menacingly over the fate his tormented daughter, who was brightly portrayed by the soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin. Johannes Chum's steely Cavalier was quietly threatening yet gallant, winning our hearts when selflessly defending Cardillac against the rabble. The choir – the first voices we hear – provided roof-raising contributions.

The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino is keeping its new Music Director busy. Luisi returns to the Florence stage for a performance of Mendelssohn's Paulus later this month. Catch him if you can.