Richard Strauss’ last opera Capriccio ends with an orchestral question mark, and the questions posed by Strauss and his co-librettist Clemens Krauss are left suspended like Till Eulenspiegel, whose final smirk the music faintly echoes. The extent of Strauss’ complicity in – or knowledge of – the crimes of the Nazi regime has been endlessly discussed. Should we “distinguish people from their works” as the Countess sings, seduced by the power of the music, or is silence tantamount to sharing in the guilt as La Roche, the theatre director, states in his testament.

In Brigitte Fassbaender’s new production, the opera takes place in Occupied France at the time of its first production in 1942. Johannes Leiacker’s set is the glazed winter garden of a château. The plants are all dead and the only vegetation is that painted on flats stacked at the side. The men wear tweeds and cords while the Countess seeks warmth in her furs, a sign of wartime deprivation. At the rear, a proscenium is closed by an elaborate swagged curtain, where La Roche’s troupe will mount a spectacle for her birthday.

As an experienced singer, Fassbaender excels in the subtle interaction of the characters and pointing of the text, and with a cast mainly drawn from the resident ensemble gesture and movement are finely delineated. Daniel Schmutzhard's poet, Olivier, was assertively sung, his ‘stage cold’ apparent when he sneezes only during the music of his rival for the hand of the Countess, while Flamand was sung with passionate almost Heldentenor power by A.J. Glueckert. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, in Fassbaender’s old role of Clairon, chic in tailored Chanel suit and fox furs, underplayed the actressy flamboyance. With her richly textured mezzo she parried ironically the advances of the brusque forthright baritone of Gordon Bintner, as the Count.

The craggy bass of Alfred Reiter as La Roche, with his sardonic world weary manner, turned him into a real director of events, rather than the buffo character as which he seems ready to cast himself. His Italian singers Mario Chang, the House Duke in Rigoletto, and the limpid-voiced Sydney Mancasola, a local Musetta, did not overdo the parody in Strauss’ parody of Italian operatic conventions.

In the central role of the Countess, the cool blonde beauty of Camilla Nylund, with a more than passing resemblance to Catherine Deneuve, did not initially, with her full-bodied Nordic voice, seem ideally at home in the witty badinage. The first part of the evening seemed very sophisticated and even mannered, yet there were intimations of a darker dimension. During the opening sextet, the major-domo’s young son is seen playing noisily with a model war plane and is reprimanded for giving a Hitler salute. As she orders chocolate, the Countess checks the proofs of a ‘Liberation’ propaganda poster and the footmen regularly file across the stage carrying violin cases (to what purpose?). La Roche’s screening of lantern slides to illustrate his lavish theatrical vision for the heroic spectacle, The Fall of Carthage, his artistic justification, projects Albert Speer’s architectural models of Hitler’s world capital, Germania. The quarrelling fugal octet rages as the characters dispute aesthetics, while the stage is flooded with images of burning synagogues, bombed cities and ruined opera houses. 

The guests disperse leaving the Countess to ponder the choice she must make the next morning between poet and musician. During the Mondschein interlude, the front curtain fell and conductor Sebastian Weigle directed a radiantly empassioned orchestra, contrasting with the balanced sheen and fluent style of earlier. The curtain then rises on the whole depth of the stage in long perspective. The Countess appears literally of greater stature in an elaborate 18th-century pannier gown. She has herself become the heroine of the opera based on the events of that day, discussed and wrangled over by her guests. Nylund’s rich, ample voice bloomed in the glorious setting of the sonnet, cosseted by burnished horn playing, in Strauss' unsurpassed operatic farewell to the soprano voice.

Gazing into the ‘Spiegelbild’, mirror of the audience’s perception, she muses whether there is an ending that is not trivial, as the major-domo announces supper. This, however, seems to be a secret code, for the footmen enter in outdoor clothes, the violin cases containing weapons not instruments. The Countess changes into a grey mac and beret – now a member of the Resistance – embraces each man in turn and leads them decisively into the night.

Instead of open-ended ambiguity there is positive engagement. Yet, as Monsieur Taupe, the prompter forgotten by his colleagues, had observed in the sharply etched performance of Graham Clark: “Can this merely be a dream?”. Is the reality of the Countess’ action another donning of a role-playing mask, another level of theatrical illusion?