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Memo to opera producers: staircases that dominate a set are bad for theatre. Nicolas Joel’s new production puts the Emperor and his suite in a majestic palace with lavish Klimt frescos and pillars and an unavoidable flight of stairs (sets by the trusty Ezio Frigerio). They all move with hieratic stiffness, vertigo perhaps, but more probably to underline the contrast with the lower, human sphere where Barak the Dyer inhabits a post-industrial sewer, with his surly wife glued to a TV and a bottle of scotch. Down here, at least things move, especially when steaming piles of an unmentionable substance are flushed down the back wall.

But even if the staircase rises and divides to magical effect in Act Three, it too often forces the cast to the front of the stage in concert performance mode, with particularly lame entrances and exits next to the proscenium arch. Richard Strauss and Hofmannsthal took a sledgehammer to knock together a didactic message couched in a bloated fairy tale. Giving it this corseted treatment makes it all the more cumbersome.

As huge compensation, Joel has picked a splendid cast that rises to the work’s terrifying demands. It is true that Janice Baird as the Dyer’s wife forces a worryingly wild, screechy top to breaking point, but her middle register is thrillingly delivered. Young Andrew Schroeder’s touching Barak shows off beautifully liquid phrasing, Doris Soffel is hysterically effective as the unhappy nurse, and Robert Dean Smith’s Emperor clinches his top notes with glorious ease.

The star achievement is Ricarda Merbeth’s Empress: heavenly tone, all the notes and a strong emotional pulse in her self-denial.

Supporting roles are all, without exception, brilliantly sung. The orchestra, one of France’s best, is not the Vienna Philharmonic, and it shows in some ragged solo work, but Pinchas Steinberg’s passionate conducting of the swirl and surge of a famously difficult and overwritten score is spine- tingling. Other French houses, including in Paris, can continue to look on agog as Toulouse once again exhibits the best singing in the land. ★★★★☆

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