To a greater extent than any other of Richard Strauss’ early operas, the revised version of Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) actually works in the concert hall. Unlike the 100-piece orchestras used in Salome and Elektra, Ariadne only requires 35 musicians, making it easier for the singers to be heard when they share the stage with the instrumentalists. Moreover, like the later Capriccio, it is an opera about opera (also called ‘meta-opera’): the Prologue is a behind-the-scenes look at the intrigues and compromises that shape the opera proper which occupies the longer second half. Exposing the mechanics of the music-making process to the public gaze by releasing the orchestral musicians from the pit is definitely in keeping with the spirit of this game. In fact, at an early stage, Strauss and Hofmannsthal actually considered this positioning, even if they later reverted to convention.

That said, the Deutsche Oper’s unstaged version at the Philharmonie did involve some losses: most obviously, the comedy was somewhat muted when physical action was removed. Thomas Blondelle’s Dance Master was one of the few to capture fully the humour of his part, and sadly his role was confined to the shorter Prologue. However, some of the laughs come from our recognition that Strauss at times is sending up his more serious characters. The idealistic Young Composer, about as far-removed from the pragmatic Strauss as it is possible to be, is affectionately made a figure of fun at some points, although our sympathies are still supposed to be with him still. Daniela Sindram played this trouser role and got the biggest ovation of the night. She cut a passionate figure, although her voice was a touch fruity for my taste. Of those who only appeared in the Prologue, I would have welcomed a more strongly characterised Haushofmeister, the speaking role played by Franz Mazura, while Markus Brück did well as the music teacher. The singers came and went to their positions now at front of the stage, now on raised platforms behind the musicians – for some, this made a difference to how well they were heard.

Meagan Miller was a late replacement for Anja Harteros in the title role, and she brought a warm dignity to the part. Her major solo “Es gibt ein Reich” began somewhat less legato than I’m used to (she was obviously responding to the orchestral articulation at this point), but it blossomed into glorious lyricism at “Du wirst mich befreien”. Stefan Vinke’s Bacchus was rather more problematic: his tone sounded pushed and edgy when in the higher register, and although he improved somewhat as his demanding scene went along, it never sounded fully comfortable.

Susanne Elmark had the vocal flexibility necessary for Zerbinetta’s demanding coloratura part, and her big number, “Großmächtige Prinzessin” was followed by an entirely understandable ovation. This made up for the fact that she was often inaudible in the Prologue, for which some of the responsibility must rest with the conductor. While she made a good attempt to capture the whimsical inconstancy of her character, the fact that she changed position a lot while singing (even turning her back at a couple of points) did have consequences for her sound.

The trio of mythic beings Naiad, Dryad and Echo were very different voice types, but the blend was still very pleasing: the versatile Siobhan Stagg delivered some delightful liquid roulades in her upper register as Naiad, underpinned by solid performances from Ronita Miller (Dryad) and Elena Tsallagova (Echo). Their later trio “Ein schönes Wunder” was particularly lovely. Similarly, the male quartet of Commedia dell’Arte characters did well, with the high tenor of Paul Kaufmann (Brighella) and the bass Tobias Kehrer (Truffaldino) the pick vocally. Carlton Ford as Harlequin was fine in solos such as “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen” (a section described appositely by Norman Del Mar as ‘spiced classicism’), but he was largely submerged in the quartet.

The orchestra was particularly good in the Overture to the opera proper, although there were a few slightly sour moments in terms of the tuning elsewhere, and on the whole the playing sounded more safe than sparkling. The layout of the musicians was interesting, with the strings all on the left, and the winds on the right, which in effect allowed the two groups to be perceived as separate, homogenous entities. Ulf Schirmer marshalled matters efficiently, and seemingly was clearly seen even by those singers positioned behind him, although he did turn around a little to push Miller’s tempo on a bit at one point. It was an evening when much was done well and efficiently, even if overall it felt more of an amuse-oreille than anything more.