English Touring Opera is fortunate to have a fine orchestra, with a sparkling rendering of the overture here setting the scene beautifully.

Playing in theatre pits is so often death to a convincing sound, but everyone was committed to spot-on intonation, clean-cut articulation and sensitive phrasing. Rapport between instrumentalists, singers and conductor Robert Dean was such that it was rare for any vocal line to be overshadowed.

So . . . Women are all the same are they? Modern audiences are possibly more phlegmatic with this concept, as the tale of sexual politics and calculated betrayal unfolds.

First-time opera director Timothy Walker thankfully included humour to lighten any darker implications in the plot and as ever, Mozart's genius created perfect ensembles ranging from solo arias to full-blooded sextets encompassing the total cast.

Premiered in 1790 this controversial opera was somewhat neglected as the plot was considered to be immoral, but a musical reason was that the role of Fiordiligi was deemed unsingable.

Soprano Amanda Echalaz had no qualms however, her vocal gymnastics also encompassing sumptuous low registers. Connecting recitatives were brilliantly supported by inventive harpsichord interpolations from Leo Hussain.

This opera is a tour-de-force. Sarah Cox as Despina is a true scheming partner with Andrew Slater's mellifluous Don Alfonso, although occasional worrying strain on high notes marred otherwise smooth control from tenor Gardar Thor Cortes, and again, Rachel Nicholl's top notes as lively Dorabella were frequently over-loud.

All acting was first class, added to which fine singing and sublime music outshone any devious intrigues and conspiracies. n Further performances tonight and Sat. Also at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, next Fri and at Warwick Arts Centre on May 17, 19 and 21.

<b>Maggie Cotton </b>