“Abandon all hope of comprehension, ye who enter here”, to paraphrase Dante. The elliptical libretto of Theatre of the World, Louis Andriessen’s fifth full-length opera, directed by Pierre Audi, should come with this warning, though not Andriessen’s masterly score. The work celebrates Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century Jesuit scholar who left an astonishing bibliography on manifold subjects, including fossils, volcanoes, antiquities and music. He invented the megaphone and developed theories that approached Darwinism, but he was also an unbridled fantasist. Hugely admired in his time, many of his theories and improbable inventions were later discredited.

The opera is subtitled “A grotesque in 9 scenes”. Andriessen has, in fact, contemplated the grotesque in Kircher’s intellectual intemperance and distilled it into a humorous, mysterious and diabolical creation. Kircher, who is dying, embarks on a journey through his own past and imagination, visiting places he wrote about, but never saw, such as China. With him is a Boy, voiced androgynously by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, who is really the devil, and a fearful Pope Innocent XI, an awful mess of clerical clichés saved by tenor Marcel Beekman’s canny performance. On the way, Kircher’s publisher, played by actor Steven Van Watermeulen, shows up, as do three witches who sing cabaret and murder for fun, and two lovers, She and He. Andriessen requires much from his amplified singers. They need to declaim and sing with reduced vibrato. Baritone Martijn Cornet (He) sang beautifully and vibrato-free during the lovers’ Classical duet, where Nora Fischer’s pop crooning sounded misjudged. Intermittently, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz appears, a poet-nun whom Kircher has never met, but knows through her letters. She is his Beatrice. Jazz singer Cristina Zavalloni, Andriessen’s muse, sang her reflections, recalling Mexican folk songs, with supple sensuality. Andriessen moulds endlessly shifting echoing figures, haunting melodies, peppery big band rhythms and more into an ever-changing but coherent whole, threaded with a recurring brass motif that, like the hero, has many guises.

Alas, the text is far less nimble. In spite of much expository dialogue, (“I wrote the singular comprehensive and intelligent book about China” [sic]), Helmut Krausser’s libretto reveals little about Kircher’s voracious curiosity or his flamboyant charlatanism. A physically and vocally intense Kircher, Leigh Melrose uglified his powerful baritone as necessary, but was given little by way of characterisation beyond twisting his chalk-white face into either “aghast” or “angry”. It was up to Reinbert de Leeuw and his fantastic Asko|Schönberg ensemble to radiate a sense of wonder and adventure. Inventive and full of surprises, the music clarified its subject’s contradictions. Low woodwinds and brass, including bass trombone and contrabass clarinet, furnished an irreverent streak. An awed Largo took in the scale of the pyramids, elsewhere a pert mambo detonated. Pulsating percussion crescendos whipped up the euphoria of discovery, abating to allow Sor Juana’s ballads to soar tenderly into the ether. The succession of quotes and prosaic phrases could not compete with the music for clarity and fluency and the seven languages of the libretto only rendered it more opaque. Kircher’s linguistic research, which included bogus translations of the hieroglyphics, beg a polyglot libretto. However, sentences such as “Siamo felici forever" suggest an expatriate struggling with globish rather than “the last Renaissance man”, one of Kircher’s epithets.

Probably no staging could fix the libretto’s problems, but this European première production also got the wandering trio stuck in a copperplate graveyard at the base of the Tower of Babel. The venue could be partly to blame. The Royal Carré Theatre was built for circus shows and has both a ring and a stage. The Quay Brothers placed their circular set in the ring and projected their stop-motion animation on an onstage scrim. The ring and the stage only integrated into a visual whole from centre seats. The only visible travelling took place behind the scrim. Sor Juana floated in and out, strikingly framed as a portrait, and boats bobbed by on the Lethe, river of oblivion. The delicately flittering images referencing Kircher’s wondrously illustrated books rarely elucidated the dialogue, but their ambiguity was fascinating. Light rays or pathogens? Magnetic waves or bacon rashers? Kircher wrote on optics and magnetism and concluded that infectious microorganisms caused the plague, although pork might have escaped his scrutiny. At the end of this musically eventful, but visually marooned, journey, Kircher dies. The Carnifex, or executioner, a looming, booming Mattijs van de Woerd, cuts out his heart, to primal percussive pumping. (Kircher wished his heart to be buried separately in a church.) Posterity, in the shape of great thinkers in identical costumes, turns up to judge his legacy. Kircher’s thirst for knowledge and unbounded fantasy are paradoxical in scientific terms, but have poetic congruence. Andriessen’s protean score is that poetry and, defeating the ineffectual text and staging, the fine cast and musicians delivered it with conviction.