In the Teatro Massimo's diptych of Die Glückliche Hand and Bluebeard's Castle there are battalions of nurses, half-naked women hanging from fairground rides, a magician that pulls a live rabbit from a hat, ghouls breathing into microphones like heavy metal stars and more women scuttling like spiders on all fours. And that's just a taster. Performing arts duo Ricci/Forte throw what feels like the entire directorial arsenal at this production. The outcome is mostly very strong.

Gábor Bretz © Rosellina Garbo
Gábor Bretz
© Rosellina Garbo

There were various justifications for pairing these works. Written two years apart (in 1913 and 1911), both have strong visual components (Schoenberg wanted images, story and music to play roles of equal importance in the overall dramatic experience provided by this work, while Bartók's use of colour drew on Kandisnky's symbolist theories). But it is the works' exploration of the theme of loneliness that is the focus here. In this grand meditation on the impossibility of love the two have been knitted together and negotiated via a newly created spoken dialogue.

Ricci/Forte, best known for theatre and dance, have an identifiably high-octane, imaginative style which has also been successfully applied to opera (the partnership recently won the coveted Abbiati Prize from Italian critics for their production of Turandot at the 2017 Macerata Festival). But the current production is only their second foray into the genre – for the Sicilian house to have bagged the duo is somewhat of a coup.

<i>Bluebeard's Castle</i> © Rosellina Garbo
Bluebeard's Castle
© Rosellina Garbo

True to form, the directors have filled Bluebeard's Castle, which closes the diptych, with lavish detail. Women dangle their hair in water bowls and flick their heads, creating cascades of water representing tears, in time to flourishes in the music. Bluebeard's wives hang from ropes like legs of ham. All of this helps conjure a gloomy atmosphere for the castle. But diffuse imagery makes it difficult to understand what the intended setting is meant to be (what are all of those nurses doing at the fairground?), and unrelenting business onstage weakens focus on the central relationship. Even so, the cast is strong enough to make an impact in its own right. Bass Gábor Bretz's Bluebeard is alluringly mysterious, the passion always bubbling below the surface, while mezzo Atala Schöck's Judit is attractively, robustly sung (even if some of her high notes were a bit wayward).

<i>Die glückliche Hand</i> © Rosellina Garbo
Die glückliche Hand
© Rosellina Garbo

The real fun is to be had in Die Glückliche Hand. This is an extreme work – Schoenberg's 20-minute-long score courses with supercharged musical ideas – and Ricci/Forte are equal to it. Apart from the nurses, twitching women and magician, they give us writhing mermaids and, in the surreal opening, a woman who peels back a fat suit to her underwear. Such hyperactivity mirrors the musical audacity, the unbroken sequence of images appearing as if by magic from behind a sheer curtain like figment's of the protagonist's imagination (entirely fitting, considering the psychological nature of this highly expressionistic work). Bretz gives a vivid account of The Man, who is tormented by his (imagined or real) lover's persistent elusiveness. The chorus' Sprechstimme contributions sends shocks of electricity through the auditorium.

Hungarian conductor Gregory Vajda draws maximum commitment from the Massimo orchestra. The Bartók is richly played, and the Schoenberg packs a real punch. In Ricci/Forte's adjoining monologue, a mad scientist, accompanied by two human guinea pigs in underwear, hypothesises at length about the inevitably of solitude. While clearly an effective time filler, the speech also adds depth to the directors' stratagem. This is highly creative opera pulled off with conviction. Ricci/Forte are ones to watch closely. Could a new pair of opera directors be about to join the likes of Emma Dante and Damiano Michieletto in Italy's top league?

****1