In five feverish years at the turn of the 20th century, Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a series of brief yet sensational plays that have been a rich seam of musical inspiration for composers from Debussy and Schoenberg to Beat Furrer. Spare in dialogue yet highly charged with symbolist imagery, works such as Pelléas et Mélisande provide fertile ground for music to take root and explore a world of implied meaning.

Aribert Reimann has taken on several literary giants since successfully tackling Shakespeare in Lear, his breakout work in the late 1970s written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In his settings of authors such as Strindberg, Kafka and Lorca (The Ghost Sonata, The Castle and The House of Bernada Alba respectively) he has honed a post-expressionist language that reached an emotional intensity in his 2010 work Medea.

In L’Invisible, which had its première last weekend at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Reimann has condensed three plays (L’Intruse, Intérieur and La Mort de Tintagiles) into a concise operatic mini-trilogy, strung together into a single act with fragments of Maeterlinck’s poetry. The “invisible” in all three is death, whether it be a supernatural force, tragic news that weighs down those who must deliver it, or its personification by a murderous Queen. 

For Reimann, a native Berliner, the Deutsche Oper is home turf: the house has premiered five out of his nine operas and gave him his first job as a répétiteur. Under the steady hand of chief conductor Donald Runnicles, the house orchestra gave a cool and measured account of a mature score that eschews the angular and brash gestures of Medea in favour of a taut, subtle and often mellow musical language reflecting the suggestive source material.

Webern and Berg still lurk behind Reimann’s violent tone clusters, but this time joined by Debussy. The melismatic vocal writing relishes the French language and in its languid ornamentation at times evokes chanson. It was a gift for an excellent ensemble cast, with standouts bass-baritone Stephen Bronk and soprano Rachel Harnisch, who packed dramatic punch as Ygraine in the trilogy’s concluding part.

At just 90 minutes, L’Invisible is brief and all-too fleeting, its constituent parts packed into bite-size chunks that vanish before they can be savoured. The pace of dialogue is often relentless, meaning that killer lines such as “You see more than we do” (delivered to the blind grandfather in L’Intruse who senses a supernatural presence) are thrown away casually. Given space to breathe, such moments could deliver a real punch.

Vasily Barkhatov’s production was restrained and only gained confidence in La Mort de Tintagiles. Here, the struggle of the boy (Salvador Macedo acquitting himself well in the speaking role of Tintagiles) against an unseen Queen was reimagined as the nightmarish fears of a sickly child and his protective nurses on a children’s hospital ward. However, Barkhatov’s decision to bring the dying mother of L’Intruse on-stage, contra Maeterlinck, nullified the text’s dramatic power.

This all mattered little to an audience with immense goodwill towards Reimann, who was showered with rapturous applause at his curtain call.