“The moonlit night dazzled us. Birds shrieked in the trees. There was a rush of wind in the fields. We crawled through the dust, a pair of snakes.”

Maybe the pair of snakes is Franz Kafka, the author, and György Kurtág, the composer who set this short passage (along with 39 others by Kafka) to music. Maybe the snakes are Claire Booth and Peter Manning, the soprano and violinist who so superbly realised Kafka Fragments in the ROH Linbury Studio on Thursday night. Maybe there aren’t really any snakes. But at any rate, it doesn’t seem right to describe video artist and director Netia Jones as one of Kafka’s snakes, as her staging of this un-operatic piece did not engage productively with it, instead relying on bafflingly literal visual representations of Kafka’s elusive phrases, and shallow technological thrills.

The thing is, it’s precisely the relationship between the words and the music which makes Kafka Fragments – one of Kurtág’s most substantial pieces, written in 1985–87 – as absorbing as it is. It’s a piece which stands for everything that’s great about aphorism: the minute length of each setting gives room for every single word to resonate, and Kurtág is the most sensitive of text-setters, clearly concerned with letting the text speak as well as with adding his own voice. Kurtág’s presence never silences Kafka, but nor does he follow him blindly: the florid, almost Monteverdian melodies he gives the soprano in the final setting – the one quoted at the start – are a typical gesture, at once totally unexpected and also completely fitting; a fascinating new perspective on the words.

The downfall of this staged production of Kafka Fragments is its inability to do just this: to add a new perspective on the artwork it engages with. When the text being sung is “Someone tugged at my clothes but I shook him off”, there is simply no need to project an image of someone tugging at some clothes, however artfully that image is created. When a sentence starts with the words “My ear”, everyone is then going to be thinking about ears anyway, meaning that we don’t need to be shown a big picture of an ear. I ended up feeling slightly patronised by the idea that Kafka’s open-ended, elliptical phrases – not to mention Kurtág’s equally beguiling music – were deemed to require some sort of visual spelling-out, as if my attention span might not have been able to cope with an hour lacking any visual stimulus.

Jones’ stage direction was also uninspiring: she asked an awful lot of the fantastically versatile Claire Booth, from singing while sprawled on the floor, through some dancing, to two highly melodramatic faints. But none of this seemed necessary in a piece which purposefully avoids creating any sort of narrative. Booth nonetheless carried it all off brilliantly, even the dancing, and she delivered a perfect rendition of Kurtág’s supremely taxing score at the same time. Her musical partner Peter Manning (by day, concertmaster of the Royal Opera House) was equally impeccable, on both his normal violin and the re-tuned one he was also required to play. It’s a virtuosic part, but in Manning’s hands it was unshowy, natural, even breezy at times.

But such was the nature of the event that I found myself having to prize my eyes away from the visuals in order to give Manning the substantial attention he merited. After all, Kafka Fragments is really a strange kind of duet for its two performers, a continual, quizzical back-and-forth between words and music. A multimedia element is hence built into the DNA of this enthralling composition; adding anything else into the mix is a dangerous game indeed, and in this case not one which justified itself.