If there is a subject matter that should resonate with any audience at this point in history – arguably at any point in history – it is the clash of civilisations. The inability of human beings to communicate or even empathise, and the monstrous consequences that gap in misunderstanding leads to, is the foundational idea of Die Eroberung von Mexico (“The Conquest of Mexico”), and Wolfgang Rihm’s dense and frequently brilliant music. This Teatro Real production marks the first full staged performance of the opera outside of Germany, almost a quarter of a century after Rihm put the finishing touches to a score that took four years to complete. It is also one of two pieces the theatre has programmed in its desire to portray the arrival of Spaniards to the Americas. The second production, Purcell’s The Indian Queen, will open in November.

Antonin’s Artaud’s theatre of cruelty is the basis on which this piece builds, which also includes poetry from Mexican Octavio Paz. Conceptually, it sounds like the perfect marriage: Artaud’s physical vision of theatre seems appropriate to illustrate the meeting of Conquistador Hernán Cortés (Cortez in the score) and the Aztec Montezuma, a meeting that epitomises our perverse ability to dehumanise others. Once dehumanised, cruelty is not only allowed but often also advisable. A threat has to be removed as a matter of urgency. There is no time to assess whether that threat actually exists. Both Artaud and Rihm work on the basis that words, and even the psychology of characters, matter less than what bodies communicate. Rihm does this by letting music – the non-verbal element – dictate what the text looks like, rather than working with a pre-existing libretto. “Music must be full of emotion, and emotion must be full of complexity”, Rihm has tellingly stated. This might not be far from the emotionalising of the intellect that Wagner proclaimed, even if the outcome follows an entirely different path.

Over ten minutes of trance-like percussion set the stage in a truly powerful way. The audience is literally surrounded by sound, with an orchestra pit divided in two sections placed at different heights plus a series of “music islands” at the side boxes and at the back of the theatre. Percussion truly is the cornerstone and the driving force of this orchestra throughout the entire piece. Harmony often complements percussion, through a tonality that is neither entirely abandoned nor fully endorsed. This results in moments of poignant if patchy peculiar beauty. A recorded choir fill the air with volatility and a somehow oneiric atmosphere. Alejo Pérez keeps a strong grip on the orchestra and leads with determination a score he has unquestionably thoroughly studied.

Montezuma and Cortez dominate the stage, their voices schizophrenically echoed by two additional singers and actors respectively. This achieves extraordinary results. Nadja Michael dives into the role of Montezuma and offers an outstanding vocal and dramatic performance. Her low echo, the contralto Katarina Bradić, embodies impossibly low sounds with warmth and colossal resonance. Her high echo, Caroline Stein, gets increasingly irritating with her pounding squeals.

Georg Nigl, on the other hand, delivers a solid if not haunting enough Cortez. The two voices supporting him are one of the highlights of the evening, their ample repertoire of panting, growling and puffing having a troubling effect and provoking restlessness and apprehension.

These two characters and their corresponding acolytes are thrown onto a stage that combines the colourfulness of the Aztecs and the greyness of the Spaniards. The contrast initially works, and Alexander Polzin’s paintings make for an appealing start that matches Rihm’s belief that “music is painting in time”. However, it hits a wall as the Spaniards fail to come across as brutal and instead appear lifeless. The Aztecs, on the other hand, are never quite human either, which ironically makes it harder to commiserate with them. The clash is then devoid of tragedy in Pierre Audi’s conception of the story.

We should not expect, we are told, for this piece to have a standard argument, if such thing exists. Rather, it is conceived to present a series of situations that find in music their enhancing metaphors. While this is a valid proposal, the script is still the main problem with this work. “Neuter, masculine, feminine” is repeated ad nauseam and in so doing loses its ability to stand as a defiant statement – and instead becomes exasperating. Paz’s poem, beautiful as it is, does not quite work as a culmination of the four sections the piece is divided into. There may not be a need to follow a pattern or an argument thread, but there is certainly no point in basing music of this quality on a text that does not meet the same standard.

Montezuma and Cortez’s relationship of fear, attraction and necessity culminates in a quiet duet that almost vanishes into thin air as the production comes to an end. It is the only occasion where their voices are heard at the same time, hinting at the possibility of some love appearing between them. This is dwarfed by a clear loss of belief in coexistence and mutual understanding.

Overall, this is an uneven production with some remarkable moments and some missed opportunities. An experience worth having in any case.