Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, about the 16th-century German artist Matthias Grünewald’s personal conflict between art and action during the peasant wars surrounding the Reformation, was written in the 1930s as a reaction to the political events surrounding the composer. But if his choice of subject matter has proved anything, it is that it is relevant for all time, with artists constantly having to gauge their own place in society and in the world. For his new production of the opera at Musiktheater im Revier in the Ruhr town of Gelsenkirchen, timed as part of the Reformation 500 celebrations, Michael Schulz has brought the action up to the present, with particular reference to the region’s recent artistic history.

As is revealed in a film during the opera’s Prelude that cleverly morphs into the live first scene, this Mathis is the French artist Yves Klein, whose vast, three-dimensional murals adorn the foyers of this very theatre: we see him create one of his signature Anthropometries, paintings made by having a paint-covered model roll around on the canvas, as often as not in his trademark International Klein Blue, a colour that, appropriately in the context, recalls the Madonna’s blue cloak in so many medieval and Renaissance paintings.

There’s also a reference to the Swiss performance artist Daniel Spoerri and his Eat Art, feted for a while in nearby Düsseldorf in the late 1960s, when the sectarian rioters in the second scene engage somewhat bizarrely in a cake fight. And paint itself becomes the instrument of torture in a couple of instances, such as in the humiliation of Count Helfenstein. Unfortunately, these allusions aren’t really taken further in a staging that underplays the religious iconography and doesn’t seem to know where it wants to concentrate its focus instead.

There are some good moments, and an arresting surprise or two, but things could have been sharper – the angels’ tableau of the penultimate scene, for instance, where the characters take on the personae of Grunewald’s famous Isenheim Alterpiece, has more of the essence of a school nativity play about it, even if the gruesomely bedecked chorus makes for a neat modern take on a Boschian underworld looming from beneath the raised stage. Heike Scheele’s modular, church-inspired set moves around to create the different settings successfully, and characterisation generally is strong, though things will undoubtedly tighten further as the run of performances progresses.

The same could probably be said of the orchestral playing of the Neue Philharmonie Westfalen under Rasmus Baumann, which although boasting some sleek woodwind solos was a little rough and ready in places and still needs time to cohere in some aspects of the performance. Although he didn’t lack commitment, Urban Malmberg in the title role lacked tonal allure, and his nasal, almost tenor-like sound was accompanied by so demonstrative a delivery that one feared for his blood pressure. Yamina Maamer was a solid Ursula, though some of the part’s subtleties were lost through a heavy vibrato. Martin Homrich’s Cardinal Albrecht was more secure, and Tobias Haaks as Schwalb, Luciano Batinić as Riedinger and Bele Kumberger as Regina produced some of the best music-making of the evening. The smaller roles were all admirably taken and the choral singing was strongly characterised, but there was something of the work’s visceral power – heard to far more effect in a more stripped-down production at Staatstheater Mainz in the spring, and my personal benchmark in theatrical experience of this work – that was ultimately missing from this first-night performance.