Richard Strauss’ penultimate opera Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae) first saw the light of day in Salzburg at a public dress rehearsal just before the whole 1944 festival was cancelled following the assassination attempt on Hitler. It had to wait until 1952, three years after the composer’s death, for its première run and has only just scraped a place in the repertoire ever since. For this third Salzburg production it has been given the full Grosses Festspielhaus treatment – a lavish staging and the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit.

There was a strong element of escapism in the composer’s choice of this ‘joyful mythology’ as the subject of an opera written in Germany in the late 1930s and early 40s. Joseph Gregor’s libretto was based on an operetta synopsis drafted by Hugo von Hofmannsthal a few years before his untimely death that conflates the two myths of Jupiter’s pursuit of Pollux’s daughter Danae and of Midas and his golden touch. The link is gold, and we have in effect a kind of satyr play to Wagner’s Ring, in which denial of the allure of the precious metal is shown to be the route to love: Jupiter’s attempt to seduce Danae with a shower of gold proves less successful than Midas’s simple human means, and the lecherous god is left to rue his loss with a sense of resignation worthy of Hans Sachs.

There’s plenty of contemporary and wider resonance in the themes that the opera explores, but Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has chosen to pursue the escapism idea and present it as nothing more than a fairy tale – a missed opportunity, one feels, for some more penetrating dissection of its ideas, but a visually impressive evening in the theatre nonetheless. Hermanis’s own sets and the costume designs of Lithuania’s top fashion designer Juozas Stakevičius hark back to Leon Bakst and his creations for the Ballets Russes – never mind Ancient Greece, we are transported to an Arabian Nights fantasy of vibrant colours, of exotic dress and exaggerated turbans, with a set draped in Persian carpets and projected images of their geometric patterns, and a dozen dancers in Fokine-like choreography punctuating the action.

The fact that Act III is set in the Syrian desert seems to be the only real peg for all this, and the Islamification of the setting, with its ban on representational imagery, throws up at least one inconsistency, when Pollux reveals the ‘portrait’ of his daughter that Midas has touched to be another, golden carpet of abstract design. An uneasy naturalism is introduced with a rather gratuitous walk-on part by a real donkey (Erna, as the programme duly credits her among the Statisterie – walking off again was more of an issue for this stage-struck animal); fortunately, for those who remember Blue Peter, the elephant upon which Jupiter makes his first entrance is a life-size model.

Musically, the production was on firmer ground, led by Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in the title role. She has a naturally luscious voice for Strauss (she had previously appeared as the Marschallin at the festival) and coped well with the composer’s demands – right up to a carefully poised top C sharp in her last phrase. Although this last word in the opera goes to her welcoming cry of “Midas”, it is Jupiter who dominates the final act, with his last, failed attempt at wooing Danae. The role is like Wotan and Onegin roled into one, requiring godly authority and seductive allure in equal measure. Tomasz Konieczny had the measure of the part, coping well with its high-lying tessitura, but disappointing in his seeming inability to project above the sound of the orchestra.

Tenors do well in this opera, with a lyrical Midas from Gerhard Siegel, a wily, Herod-like Pollux from Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and the ghost of Wagner’s Loge in the Mercury of Norbert Ernst. Regine Hangler’s lithe coloratura meanwhile made a telling cameo of Danae’s maid Xanthe, and the quartet of kings (Pavel Kolgatin, Andi Früh, Ryan Speedo Green and Jongmin Park – the latter two familiar from last year’s Cardiff Singer of the World) and their spouses (Mária Celeng, Olga Bezsmertna, Michaela Selinger and Jennifer Johnston) completed a finely tuned cast.

Franz Welser-Möst conjured all the mercurial lightness and pathos from this masterpiece of Strauss’s Indian summer: the sheer warmth and beauty of sound coming from the Vienna strings in the last scene brought the performance to a conclusion that in the context could only be likened to an aural golden glow.