In his semi-serioso “Ten Golden Rules” for conducting dating from the early 1920s, Richard Strauss suggested that Salome and Elektra should be conducted “as if they were by Mendelssohn: Fairy Music”. He didn’t make any similar public pronouncements about Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is, of course, Fairy Music, if not exactly in the Mendelssohnian mould. But Kirill Petrenko’s astonishing conducting of the score (uncut, as far as I could tell) at this performance managed to present this vast work with a delicacy, laced with real visceral punch when necessary, that was a revelation.

Elena Pankratova (Barak the Dyer's Wife) © Wilfried Hösl
Elena Pankratova (Barak the Dyer's Wife)
© Wilfried Hösl

The performance abounded with textures clarified and unknotted, and while several passages were unusually swift – the first Act’s “Erdenflug” went at a hell of a lick once we’d made the descent, while the motifs that swirl in the maelstrom of the Kaiserin’s Act 2 bedroom scene did so with fleet agility – nothing felt rushed. The playing of the orchestra, at a breathtaking level of virtuosity, achieved a near-miraculous balance of transparency and thrust, with each individual line carefully moulded and exquisitely turned – this was especially so in the accompaniment to the Kaiser’s big scene in the second act, distinguished by fine work from Emanuel Graf's solo cello. 

Only in the final act did I feel a couple of times that maybe Petrenko might have given us something richer and more conventionally Straussian. The violin solo introducing the Kaiserin’s final scene was strangely wan, for example, though answered by horn playing of melting beauty, while the final quartet’s shift through the harmonic gears to the work’s crushing climax didn’t quite register with the cataclysmic power it can. There was no stinting on volume, but I missed a sense of full, thunderous, post-Wagnerian weight. 

Elena Pankratova (Barak the Dyer's Wife) © Wilfried Hösl
Elena Pankratova (Barak the Dyer's Wife)
© Wilfried Hösl

That feeling, however, might also have had something to do with Krzysztof Warlikowski’s grand 2013 production, which declines to offer anything other than a straightforward reading of the final pages. Massed children flock the stage and the two couples enjoy a well-earned glass of bubbly. Various cultural and religious images are projected onto the vast tiled walls of Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s set in a kind of multi-denominational apotheosis. 

Warlikowski began the evening with an extended – and largely unnecessary – prologue, projecting scenes from Alan Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. Thereafter, he seemed happy not to try and impose order on Hofmannsthal’s scenario, offering instead a series of striking and evocative images, with multiple Freudian overtones, from which we were invited to draw our own conclusions. The set’s walls could be closed to provide a smart, veneered backdrop, helping to offer a prevailing atmosphere of imposing affluence. There was constantly effective use of video (Denis Guéguin), as well as of supernumeraries old (largely in the form of waiters) and young (often with bird heads). There was an emphasis, too, on quietly civil encounters, such as that between the Emperor and the Falcon during his Act 2 scene.

Ricarda Merbeth (Die Kaiserin) and Burkhard Fritz (Der Kaiser) © Wilfried Hösl
Ricarda Merbeth (Die Kaiserin) and Burkhard Fritz (Der Kaiser)
© Wilfried Hösl

Within this context, the imperial couple were somewhat ambiguously defined. Ricarda Merbeth’s Kaiserin was notable, however, for her dramatic intensity, coupled to a fearlessly employed voice of diamantine focus (if, at first, of slightly unreliable accuracy). Burkhard Fritz was a sensitive, musical Kaiser, though he was taxed by the extended final act. Wolfgang Koch made a moving, sincere Barak and Elena Pankratova his thrilling wife, although her German pronunciation lapsed into something more Moscow than Munich at one stage in Act 1. Michaela Schuster was a larger-than-life Amme, here presented as a haughty peroxide blonde.

The casting showed real quality beyond the five principals, too. Sebastian Holecek stood out for his powerful Geisterbote, while I’ve rarely heard a more moving and mellifluous trio of Wächter in the theatre – or even on disc. Munich’s lavish resources achieved satisfyingly lavish results, then, but it’s the astonishing orchestral performance under Petrenko that will stick in the mind for me, more than Warlikowski’s visually striking but, in the end, slightly non-committal staging.