Late 19th- and early 20th-century Italian opera was very much dominated by verismo, the emphasis on ordinary, real characters and situations exemplified by such works as Masacagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Puccini’s La bohème. But there were other ideas at play in those years. Antonio Smareglia was a near contemporary of Puccini’s, half Italian and half Croatian, who chose to take a more Wagnerian path. He is best known – if at all – for his folk opera Nozze istriane (Istrian Wedding), but his most significant contribution was in his exploration of mythical and more diffuse dramatic themes.

La falena (1897) was composed to a libretto by Silvio Benco and occupies a world not that distant from such Symbolists as Maeterlinck or Wilde (in his Salome), or the Italian poet and dramatist D’Annuncio. Smareglia’s self-styled ‘Legend’ tells of a moth-woman, the falena of the title, who appears to King Stellio and, in keeping with her mythical trope, uses her sexual wiles to encourage him to commit an evil deed, in this case to kill the father of his virginal betrothed, Albina, who in an act of forgiveness to save Stellio’s soul, kills herself. The Wagnerian parallels are obvious: the lead character torn between spiritual and physical love recalls Tannhäuser’s conflicted feelings for Elisabeth and Venus; Albina’s self-sacrifice to save her lover is reminiscent of Senta in Der fliegende Holländer; the falena’s seduction of Stellio reminds us of both Venus and Kundry; and the music reeks, in the best sense, of immersion in the chromatic harmonies of Tristan und Isolde.

Plenty of scope, then, for penetrating psychological insight from a director open to the opera’s diffuse dramaturgy. And this, by and large, Michael Schulz succeeds in achieving in this German première of the opera at Braunschweig’s Staatstheater. He sets the whole work as Stellio’s dream, a dream which contains its own inner dreams, so we first see the king during the prelude emerge before the curtains with a dagger and blooded hands and are then presumably to see the ensuing drama as a flashback through his contorted memories. A similarly dressed poacher appears to be his alter ego, and it seems that Stellio is not sure how he came to commit murder and in his mind is passing off his crime on someone else. The virginal Albina, who has herself dreamt that an evil creature will come to steal Stellio from her, constantly haunts his subconscious, and when the falena does indeed emerge for a night of seduction he is torn between the two women, yet at times cannot distinguish one from another. Kathrin-Susann Brose’s setting is spare, but makes effective use of moving panels and podia to suggest the dreamlike disconnections, and the mirrored scene for the falena’s bower is effectively done. Only Schulz’s marshalling of his chorus doesn’t convince – supposed, one assumes from his programme note, to signify the changing balance of power between men and women in the era in which the opera was written – but looks stilted and at times baffling in its actions, if firm of voice.

Nadja Stefanoff brought vocal lustre to the title role – a vivid combination of Wagner’s Venus and Kundry – and Arthur Shen, the house tenor, was a committed Stellio, with plenty of body to the middle of his range, but, early on at least, a rather pinched sound in his upper register, where vowels became flattened. Ekaterina Kudryavsteva’s Albina was lyrically and sympathetically sung, though she sounded a little underpowered compared to her colleagues. There was classy singing, too, from Orhan Yildiz as Albina’s father, Uberto, Selçuk Hakan Tiraşoğlu as the older fisherman Morio and from Michael Ha as the poacher.

Braunschweig’s Staatstheater leads the field in bringing new or neglected repertoire to the stage – only a couple of the works it is presenting in the current season could be regarded as well known. So with a lot of new music to learn it is perhaps forgiveable that the Braunschweig Staatsorchester sounded as if it still needed to work its way fully into this thoroughly symphonic, through-composed score. But conductor Florian Ludwig, guesting from Hagen Opera, had the full measure of Smareglia’s full-on, late-Romantic language, music that features stirring motifs that stay in the memory long after the final curtain has fallen. La falena may not be a long-lost masterpiece, but it throws a fascinating side-light on a fruitful period in Italian operatic history.