In a musical landscape where the bigger beasts visit four or five venues and call it a tour, while the country’s two biggest opera companies seldom stray from the capital at all, it’s left to the modestly-resourced but ingeniously flexible English Touring Opera to fly the flag for mid-scale opera in the British provinces. Who else could take Tosca to 22 towns and cities, as they did last year, or The Marriage of Figaro to 21 venues earlier this year? Who else would do the same with offbeat repertoire like Britten’s Paul Bunyan, Tippett’s King Priam or a cluster of practically unheard Donizetti operas? This company is a national treasure in every sense of both words.

<i>Radamisto</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Radamisto
© Richard Hubert Smith

Not content with sticking to its evening job, the company’s outreach programme is a trailblazer all its own. Under the zealous leadership of general director James Conway it has run hundreds of community workshops and performances, giving performances in diverse settings for audiences who would not otherwise have access to opera. Then there are children’s operas like Silver Electra and Laika the Spacedog: new pieces, professionally staged and tailored to specific school ages, that tour to wild acclaim from pupils and teachers alike. Indeed, just recently the company was joined by 75 Gloucestershire school students to perform a celebratory new piece, The Almondsbury Bells, as the culmination of a week-long residency.

Back in the realm of what we might loosely term “grown up opera”, it’s now traditional for ETO to mount a Baroque or pre-Baroque season each autumn. This is a policy that provides the UK’s regions with a rare exposure to repertoire that’s often out-of-the-way or even downright obscure. And since the company travels hither and yon you’re never far from a performance.

This year’s Handel offering is Radamisto, an opera seria that underwent centuries of neglect until the 1960s but is now one of the composer’s most widely performed stage works, admired as much for the power of its dramatic tension as its musical richness. Set in first-century Armenia (although who can say where Conway, who’s directing, will choose to locate it, or when) it’s a time-honoured tale of regal passion and military supremacy that ends in reconciliation for lovers and redemption for the villain. The opera’s cascade of showpiece arias has drawn many a star singer into its orbit, yet this will be its first high-profile production in this country since ENO’s 2010 staging.

<i>Radamisto</i> © Richard Hubert Smith
Radamisto
© Richard Hubert Smith
One advantage of touring Handel is that many of his operas, Radamisto included, make no call on a chorus, while others have negligible amounts of choral work that can be shouldered by the ensemble of solo singers. This is an important consideration for a company that criss-crosses Britain on a tight budget, particularly in music that isn’t proven box-office gold; but that doesn’t mean there is no ambit for massed voices in the ETO portfolio. On the contrary, since 2018 sees the culmination of a three-year choral undertaking that has attracted large audiences everywhere it’s played.

This is the Bach project. Conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny and the Old Street Band (English Touring Opera’s affiliated baroque orchestra) have teamed up with choirs from the counties they visit to mount professional accounts of the great works in places more familiar with amateur work. Following the St John Passion in 2016 and the B Minor Mass last year, the company’s JSB triptych is rounded off this autumn with performances of the St Matthew Passion in 11 towns and cities from London to Lancaster, Sheffield to Saffron Walden, Workington to Wolverhampton. It is not staged but will be sung in German with a distinguished roster of soloists, many of them ETO regulars.

Kenny, himself a countertenor of distinction, is a stalwart of the autumn season and in addition to the Bach he will also conduct the third element of the tour, a triple bill of shorter pieces by Purcell, Carissimi and Gesualdo.

Purcell’s 50-minute opera Dido and Aeneas is the headline work, and according to ETO the young director Seb Harcombe has promised to conjure up “a Jacobean night-world” for this unquestioned masterpiece of early English opera. However, the evening’s other two segments may prove to be even more intriguing. The 17th-century Italian composer Carissimi’s sacred oratorio Jonas will be the starting point for an original drama by director-choreographer Bernadette Iglich, while the rich chromaticism of an even earlier composer, Carlo Gesualdo – the musician-murderer who made lifelong penance for his guilt by writing elaborate and emotionally charged madrigals – will be rendered in candlelit performances of some of his most intense compositions.

When touring an opera season it can be hard to expect audiences to give up three evenings of their time in the same week, and many potential spectators end up choosing just one of the available options. Yet that is the nature of the beast; it would be economically unviable to visit the same venue more than once per tour. This year’s autumn programme seems to offer a clever alternative: one big opera, one choral masterpiece and one mixed triple-header, each of which may conceivably attract a slightly different demographic from the others. Yet with such variety on offer, most music lovers would be hard pressed to choose just one of the three. Anyone who still thinks early music all sounds the same (yes, they’re still out there!) should give this trio a try.

 

See all the dates for English Touring Opera's autumn season. 

This preview was sponsored by English Touring Opera.