The prospect of a little-known 20-th century German opera about a desolate Belgian widower, ominously titled Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), doesn’t exactly scream ‘rollicking good time’, but don’t be fooled – the Royal Opera House’s latest venture is a surprisingly, and satisfyingly, full-blooded experience.

And so it should be; composed by Erich Korngold (the Hans Zimmer of Hollywood’s Golden Age, responsible for such memorable film scores as Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk), the opera is stuffed so explodingly full of melody that a Frenchman would have to be forcibly restrained from cutting out the overture and serving it with toast.

Korngold has a style all his own. Described as the ‘Viennese Puccini’, the very discernible influence of Strauss is the single black sock in the otherwise cream-coloured wash of lushly Italianate orchestral sound.

Reflecting the preoccupations of its 1920 post-war audience, Die Tote Stadt meditates on the experience of mourning, asking whether indeed there can be meaningful life after death.

The hero, Paul, fixated by the memory of his pure and beautiful wife Marie, spends his days gazing at her portrait – unable to accept her death.

A chance encounter with Marietta, a dancer who bears uncanny resemblance to Marie, sees him drawn into increasingly depraved and grotesque fantasy, as he struggles between love for the dead Marie and lust for the living Marietta.

Rarely-performed works tend to be either bad, wilfully abstruse, or (most often) both – but none of these is true of Die Tote Stadt. With two relentlessly high and challenging roles for its hero and heroine, a Strauss-sized orchestra, and a plot demanding a psychedelic dream-sequence of dramatic tableaux, it’s simply a work as hard to stage as it is to pull off.

Willy Decker’s production however (originally staged by the Vienna State Opera in 2004) does precisely this. Mirroring the schizophrenic harmonic moods of Korngold’s score, the opera becomes a visual riot of rival iconographies, throwing Dadaist surrealism, commedia dell’arte, Christianity and even a top-hat clad nod to Hollywood’s own Busby Berkeley, into the mix.

Taking much from the French tradition of physical theatre, the production is dominated by continuous movement that literally propels the action forward, dragging the eye hither and thither in ever-increasing frenzy.

For all its visual trappings, Die Tote Stadt stands or falls with its two leads. While tenor Stephen Gould (right) proved a capable if rather unexciting Paul, gaining increasing vocal command after a rather tight start, it was Nadja Michael as the mercurial Marietta/Marie who compelled attention.

A single moment of uncharacteristically dubious intonation aside, she transcended her virgin/whore archetypes, captivating and convincing both vocally and physically, and pulling off the extraordinaryfeat on which the opera’s premise necessarily hinges: creating a woman at once loin-quiveringly desirable and skin-crawlingly repugnant. With its colourful score and even more colourful production, the titular city may be dead, but there’s nothing remotely lifeless about Die Tote Stadt. See it, before it disappears back into the archives for another century.

There are further performances of Die Tote Stadt tomorrow, Monday, next Thursday, and February 11, 13 and 17. For tickets call 020 7304 4000 (