Poor Radamisto – he has so much on his plate. After singing a blistering aria condemning his sister Polissena for loving a despot who rejects her and wants to kill both him and their father to possess his wife Zenobia, he has to brace up, put his shoulder to the wheel and move the scenery about.

William Towers (Radamisto) and Katie Bray (Zenobia)
© Richard Hubert Smith

English Touring Opera is an admirably economic institution, but asking all your principals to double as stagehands seems a saving too far in James Conway’s new production of Handel’s early hit. Designer Adam Wiltshire has come up with a pair of wheeled trucks to represent walls, arches, a fortress and a prison. They take the briefest moment to shift but they can slow the action, as the singers occasionally have to check positions and put safety locks in place before launching into an aria. No wonder countertenor William Towers, as Radamisto, seemed ill-at-ease for most of the first act on opening night.

Things moved along hesitantly in the first few scenes of this unrelentlingly cruel tale and never quite caught fire until Katie Bray entered as the flashing-eyed, flinty Zenobia, determined to stand by Radamisto and resist the tyrant Tiridate and his evil designs. Her incisive singing, scything through the semi-quavers, lifted the whole show into a different dimension.

Katie Bray (Zenobia) and Grant Doyle (Tiridate)
© Richard Hubert Smith

After his shaky start, Towers sang the familiar “Ombra cara” with great poise and refinement, with some lovely work in the pit from the Old Street Band, conducted from the harpsichord by Peter Whelan. Baritone Grant Doyle, who made an impression in Garsington’s The Skating Rink this summer, is the madman Tiridate. He sings with real fire and fury but his voice is so warm, rich and round that he never entirely convinces us that his bloodlust is real.

A gorgeous oboe line floated over the strings when Tigrane, Tiridate’s henchman, resolved to break with his boss and bring about his downfall. This was the high point of tenor John-Colyn Gyeantey’s otherwise uneven performance as Tigrane, a moment of quiet resolve, nicely realised.

Ellie Laugharne (Polissena) and John-Colyn Gyeantey (Tigrane)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Things changed in the second half, when we suddenly seemed to be in a different production. Gone was the leaden pace of the opening scenes. Towers particularly seemed to find new energy when disguised as the messenger Isemeno, matched by conductor Whelan, who drove the band with renewed vigour. Soprano Ellie Laugharne brought real dignity to her portrayal of the wronged Polissena, singing with affecting grace, and ETO stalwart Andrew Slater as the king who Tiridate deposes, retained a noble demeanour, despite being pulled around on the end of a rope for more than two hours.

Even with the troublesome trucks, Wiltshire’s black, red and gold designs looked handsome under Rory Beaton’s lighting. No doubt things will settle down as Radamisto goes on tour around the country... bolstering ETO's claim to be our truly national opera company.