There’s usually plenty of hype surrounding a newly written opera performed at Covent Garden, but the carefully placed stories about Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune are on the improbable end of the scale, featuring a flying kebab shop and a team of breakdancers. So I arrived at Miss Fortune without any real idea of what I was going to get. A short 90 minutes of music later, I’m still not entirely sure what it is I’ve just seen.

First things first: Chen Shi-Zheng’s production, created for the work’s première at Bregenz Festival last year, is one of the most visually stunning opera productions I have ever seen. The kebab shop and the breakdancers are great, but Tom Pye’s sets have much more: giant, mirror-smooth geometric structures are brightly lit in primary colours and turned by video effects into a shifting industrial landscape, all set against a plain screen background lit with vividly coloured gradients. Our heroine is clad in a bright red dress - the Chinese colour for luck - which makes her a constant point of focus through the action. The Royal Opera promise “a feast for the eyes” and don’t disappoint.

Judith Weir’s orchestral music is drawn from a similarly vivid palette. It’s not standard opera house instrumentation - even with a grand piano and much percussion, relatively small string and woodwind sections leave a fair amount of space in the usually crammed orchestra pit. But Weir creates much variety of timbre and a fair degree of potency throughout. What doesn’t change, at least in the 53 minute first act, is her accenting: the music is continually using devices to ratchet up the tension - chromatics, diminished and augmented chords. Whether we’re in the initial scene of the casting of our heroine’s horoscope, the various pieces of mayhem that envelop her or the poetic aubade sung by kebab-shop owner Hassan: the music is overlaid by urgent stridency.

By the end of the act, I was finding it all rather wearing, and there’s little in the way of flowing vocal lines to lift the heart. Where Weir’s orchestral writing is full and rich, the vocal parts are for the most part agile and harsh. In the title role, Emma Bell does an admirable job of wrapping her voice around it all, without the audience ever getting a melody or a mood to remember.

It’s probably not a good idea to come to Miss Fortune looking either for deep meaning or for authentic folktale. The Sicilian tale on which the opera is based is a fairly standard story of the virtuous young girl who falls on hard times but whose virtue is ultimately rewarded; Weir changes it in two key ways. Firstly, when disaster strikes the family, our heroine leaves home for the mean streets of her own accord (in the original, she is cast out by her superstitious mother). Secondly and crucially, Weir turns Fate into a very real and live person. Throughout the opera, in an impressive piece of singing, counter-tenor Andrew Watts sings a discordant overlay over the other music, reminding everyone that he is all-powerful and capricious. The result is closer to a classical myth in which the central message is that there’s no point arguing with the gods.

The opera touches on many things relevant to modern life - the banking crisis, unemployment, sweatshop working conditions, the choice between money and love - but it doesn’t have anything significant to say about any of them. And I’m not sure I want to think too hard about the statements it does make: for example, the breakdancing team Soul Mavericks are superb, but they’re cast as stereotypical hoodlums wrecking things with baseball bats. In spite of all this, the libretto has some decent moments, particularly in the short second act in which Weir lets her hair down a little. Look out for the paean to the perfectly laundered shirt sung by Simon (the excellent Jacques Imbrailo), which is a moment of pure comic genius. Unlike in the first act, the music lets up on the never-ending tension (the strident voiceover of Fate is absent for Simon's aria), and several of the subsequent scenes are more enjoyable for it.

What you think of Miss Fortune’s music will depend very much on personal tastes: I found it music to admire rather than to love. Either way, it makes a good spectacle. If you don’t harbour too many expectations of a thought-provoking story, it’s worth going to see for the staging alone.

Miss Fortune, at Royal Opera HouseDavid Karlin reviews the première of Judith Weir's new opera Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden3