Wolverhampton; Workington; Blackburn; Sheffield; Lancaster; Hackney. Every year English Touring Opera does what our national opera company doesn’t: packs up its props and takes to the road, bringing opera to the bits of the UK other companies don’t even think about reaching. And not just Traviatas and Toscas either, but properly interesting, often unusual, repertoire.
With a core staff you can pretty much count on your fingers, and ticket prices that would scarcely buy you a sandwich at the Royal Opera House, let alone a seat, the whole operation is one of those minor miracles of the arts world — a company where a little bit of funding goes an awfully long way, and not just geographically.
Then there’s the talent. ETO has had an eye for young singers since the beginning, and a look through past casts finds everyone, from Christopher Purves and Sarah Connolly, Susan Bickley and Amanda Echalaz, starting their careers with the company.
Which isn’t to say that everything ETO touches turns to gold. With fringe works come greater risks, and there are both hits and misses in its autumn season — an all-baroque pairing of Handel’s Radamisto and a triple bill of Purcell, Carissimi and Gesualdo, with semi-staged performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion thrown in for good measure.
Headliner Radamisto is a solid, uncomplicated winner. The plot — warring families and nations in ancient Asia Minor — lends itself poorly to updating, and director James Conway’s decision to leave it be is a relief. As it is he nudges the action forward just a couple of centuries to the early days of Armenian Christianity, the jewel tones and gilding of whose art are the starting point for Adam Wiltshire’s handsome designs, which cope efficiently with a widescreen drama that demands battlements and cliff faces as well as palaces.