REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Opera in Macbeth, York Theatre Royal

Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth and Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth in York Opera’s Macbeth. All pictures: Ben Lindley

HARD on the heels of Opera North’s Falstaff, up pops York Opera with the first of Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas, Macbeth.

You do not undertake Macbeth without one absolutely key singer: not the title role, but that of his wife, Lady Macbeth. York Opera has that singer, in spades.

Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs has been sorely missed over the past few years but returns here in triumph, injecting her own special brand of inspiration and lifting the evening out of the ordinary. She alone is worth the price of admission, whatever reservations there may be elsewhere in John Soper’s production.

Beside the two Macbeths, there is another ‘character’ – according to Verdi’s own prescription –that is essential to this piece: the witches. He wanted them to be “coarse and gossipy” on the one hand and “sublime and prophetic” on the other.

A bewitching scene from York Opera’s Macbeth

The ladies of the chorus amply satisfy both requirements, indeed if they have a fault, it is their penchant for gossiping ‘off the ball’ when their attention should be elsewhere. But they blend well and their choruses are a vital pivot in the action.

Soper’s permanent set involves three huge pillars separated by wide stairways, with a low moveable platform in front. The colourings are dark, relieved only by the occasional hanging. Eric Lund’s gloomy lighting completes the bleak picture of Macbeth’s castle.

But a trick is missed with the three apparitions, who need spotlighting, with no illumination elsewhere; dry ice alone, and there is plenty in this show, does not make them ghostly enough.

The challenge facing every conductor of opera is to find a balance between accompaniment and direction, either going with the flow or commanding it. Derek Chivers opts almost exclusively for the more passive approach and as a result his tempos tend towards the sluggish, so that Verdi’s intensity slackens off alarmingly.

The returning Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth: “Her swoops skyward were spine-tingling, her resonance throughout her range thrilling,” writes reviewer Martin Dreyer

There were several occasions on this opening night when singers, either chorus or soloists, got slightly ahead of the beat, but were held back, usually to their disadvantage. Similarly, the orchestra too often lacked its usual spark though it was generally tidy.

In truth, Nicholson-Skeggs got off to an uneven start, with some wayward intonation in Act 1. Come her Act 2 monologue, however, she was firing on all cylinders. Thereafter she never looked back.

Splendidly attired in black and gold at the banquet (costumes by Maggie Soper), she delivered a resolute brindisi, alongside brilliant woodwinds, and the evening took on a new momentum. Her swoops skyward were spine-tingling, her resonance throughout her range thrilling. She is an outstanding talent.

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth was the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts. He seemed to have an aversion to facing his audience, except in his final aria, as if he was not quite inhabiting the role. His character’s vacillations have somehow to look more convincing than this. But there was plenty of evidence that he is still a useful baritone.

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth: “His character’s vacillations have somehow to look more convincing than this,” writes reviewer Martin Dreyer

Lesser roles were well taken. Adrian Cook’s Banquo (also an eerie ghost), Hamish Brown’s Macduff and Leon Waksberg’s Malcolm all made distinctive contributions. So too did Polina Bielova’s anxious Lady-in-waiting, a promising talent.

The choreography was not credited, but reached its peak in Act 3, where the witches were at their most disciplined. Elsewhere there was less cohesion. In general, less is more with choreography, especially where arms are being waved.

This first night showed the seeds of something much better, but was not quite the finished article.

Further performances: tomorrow (20/10/2023), 7pm, and Saturday, 4pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 18

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth in one of his encounters with the Witches in John Soper’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in Falstaff, Leeds Grand Theatre

Henry Waddington as Falstaff and Louise Winter as Mistress Quickly in Opera North’s Falstaff. All pictures: Richard H Smith

IT is exactly 400 years since the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works, which included The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Sir John Falstaff is its principal character, but his name does not appear in the title.

Olivia Fuchs must surely have noticed this in her new production of Verdi’s comedy, which deservedly gives plentiful attention to the wives.

Here it is the opening salvo in Opera North’s Green Season, in which its three productions are sharing scenic elements, with all sets and costumes sourced from current stock and previous productions or bought second-hand.

Kate Royal as Alice Ford, Louise Winter as Mistress Quickly, Helen Évora as Meg Page and Isabelle Peters as Nannetta

Principal among the purchases is a weathered, open-sided 1970s caravan, which serves as Falstaff’s HQ for his intrigues against the bourgeois ladies of Windsor. Down on his uppers and sporting braces and shorts over his sweaty T-shirt, he is the epitome of trailer trash. Thus the need for period costumes is neatly side-stepped, while bringing the whole comedy much nearer home: surely a victory for both ecology and economy.

But the engine-room of this sparkling evening is Garry Walker’s orchestra. Anyone who can wrest their attention away from the hi-jinks on stage will find it hard to keep a smile off their face at what is going on in the pit.

If there is more stress on the first word of commedia lirica than on the second, it is entirely in keeping with Fuchs’s vision. For humour underlies Walker’s every gesture. It is not just that his orchestra is light on its toes, it is attuned to the finest detail of Verdi’s orchestration: the dancing woodwinds, the taut trills, the caustic brass, all are calculated to enhance the text, in this case Amanda Holden’s wise and witty translation, also seen in side-titles.

Colin Judson as Bardolph, Paul Nilon as Dr Caius, Dean Robinson as Pistol, Richard Burkhard as Ford and Egor Zhuravskii as Fenton

The moment that encapsulates every aspect of the show is when Falstaff breaks into a gleeful caper on exclaiming “Alice is mine!”. Here laughter, choreography, song, orchestra are one, a magical moment.

Rarely have instruments sounded so comical, as Verdi – letting his hair down in his 80th year – throws caution to the winds. Walker deserves gratitude for reminding us of this so vividly, and with immaculate pacing into the bargain.

While we laugh at this Falstaff, we never lose sympathy for him. As he lumbers out with his ghetto blaster in Act 2, preparing for conquest, or wanders expectantly into the wood in Act 3, Henry Waddington’s corpulent blunderer is never an object of mere derision.  So that when he changes his tune at the finale and joins in the general rejoicing, it rings true – as if we have been watching a play within a play.

Tennis courting: Egor Zhuravskii as Fenton and Isabelle Peters as Nannetta

Waddington’s baritone is in excellent trim, relishing the arioso nuances of the role with exemplary diction. He has made many memorable appearances with this company, but this is surely his finest hour in Leeds.

He is admirably matched by Kate Royal’s Mistress Alice, not least through her comic timing in dialogue. But her soprano is wonderfully flexible too. As her husband Ford, James Davies stepped out of the chorus on this occasion to replace the indisposed Richard Burkhard and did so with distinction. He warmed into the role smoothly and resonantly, as if he had always been part of the front line – and deserved the cast applause at the final curtain.

There is no lack of quality in the lesser roles. Helen Évora’s charm ensures she makes the most of Mistress Meg and Louise Winter’s seen-it-all-before Mistress Quickly is a perfect piece of casting.

Kate Royal as Alice Ford and Henry Waddington as Falstaff

As the only “serious” lovers, Nannetta and Fenton, Isabelle Peters and Egor Zhuravskii are well blended, she flighty and innocent, he eager in his high tessitura, reminiscent indeed of Paul Nilon in his younger days – who here brings a cutting edge to Doctor Caius. Colin Judson and Dean Robinson offer a neat combination of bafflement and bravado as Bardolph and Pistol. The chorus is as disciplined as ever.

It is hard to judge just how green this production is. Suffice to say that the ‘tree’ of real antlers in Act 3, shed naturally by the herd at Harewood House, is an impressive assemblage. Nature will provide. But it is a tribute not only to Fuchs, but also to Leslie Travers’ set and Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes that the evening coheres so beautifully despite the environmental economies. Green is not necessarily mean.

Further performances in Leeds until October 25, then on tour until November 18. Leeds box office: 0113 243 0808 or

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 5

Richard Burkhard as Ford, Henry Waddington as Falstaff and Kate Royal as Alice Ford with members of the Chorus of Opera North and a ‘tree’ of antlers, shed naturally by the Harewood House deer herd

York Opera picks Verdi’s Macbeth for autumn murders most foul at Theatre Royal

Ian Thomson -Smith’s Macbeth and Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs’s Lady Macbeth in York Opera’s Macbeth

BY the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes to York Theatre Royal next week when York Opera stages Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.

The 19th century Italian composer drew inspiration from Shakespeare several times with three of his greatest operas based on his work.

His first adaptation in 1847 was Macbeth, whose murderous plot offered him a wealth of opportunities, not least two controversial, anti-hero central characters and scope for chorus scenes involving witches (a full ladies’ chorus singing in three parts), courtiers, refugees and soldiers.  

These components all made Macbeth a favourite choice for York Opera’s autumn production at York Theatre Royal. Sung in English, Verdi’s Macbeth stays true to the original play, complete with witches, ghosts, cut-throats and the political scheming of the Scottish court. 

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Macbeth encounters the Three Witches, Anastasia Wilson, left, Kaye Twomlow and Hannah Cahill, in York Opera’s Macbeth

Central to the opera are the roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, considered to be Verdi’s greatest baritone and dramatic soprano parts respectively. The infamous couple will be played by two of York Opera’s most experienced singers: Ian Thomson-Smith and Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs.

Supporting them in the other principal roles will be Adrian S Cook as Banquo; Hamish Brown, Macduff; Leon Waksberg, Malcolm; Noah Jackson, Fleance; Owen Williams, Ist Apparition; Victoria Beale, 2nd Apparition; Molly Raine, 3rd Apparition; Polina Bielova, Lady in Waiting; Steve Griffiths, Doctor, and Stephen Wilson, Cutthroat & Servant.

The stage director is John Soper, a long-established and accomplished member of York Opera, who has designed the sets too, now under construction by group members Wielding the baton in the pit will be Derek Chivers, a regular musical director for the company. 

Macbeth will be performed at 7pm on October 18 and 20 and 4pm on October 21, with no performance on October 19. The running time will be three hours, including one interval. Box office: 01904 623568 or

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North’s Rigoletto, Leeds Grand Theatre

Sir Willard White as Monterone in Rigoletto, his first Opera North role since 1984. Picture: Clive Barda

EXPECTATION ran high in advance of this new Rigoletto from theatre director Femi Elufowoju Jr, not least because it marked his first venture into the world of opera.

Opera North’s last skirmish with Giuseppe Verdi’s piece was a grubby gangland affair in 2007 that eliminated aristocratic titles along with Giovanna. This time, according to an interview in the programme, the setting was present-day ‘Mantua, UK’, adding racism to the work’s already heavy load of problems in society.

There was absolutely nothing wrong in choosing black singers for all the “outsider” roles, headed by Rigoletto, Gilda and Count Monterone, and including Countess Ceprano and Marullo, but it became a dodgy move.

During the prelude, we saw Rigoletto being primped in a dressing-room, for what seemed like a play within a play; there was a purfling of lighting round the proscenium. Attendees at the Duke’s orgy were a scruffy lot, mainly in everyday clothes, with men in paint-splattered overalls as if they had accidentally strayed in from backstage workshops. So far, so egalitarian.

Rigoletto’s moanings about his deformity (supposedly a hunchback) fell on deaf ears: here was the tallest man in the cast, a striking figure, standing tall, albeit occasionally writhing and twitching as if having an epileptic fit.

Sharp-eyed programme-readers might have gleaned that his was mental disfigurement caused by Monterone’s curse – hard to believe. To everyone else, it looked dangerously as if skin colour was the cause of the scorn he endured, quite the opposite of the intended effect. In any case, directors should not rely on programme notes to explain what they put on stage.

Jasmine Habersham as Gilda and Eric Greene as Rigoletto. Picture: Clive Barda

There were further difficulties. The whole kidnapping episode had an aura of farce. The (mainly white) thugs were far from menacing in their vermillion onesies, brandishing electric torches in synchronisation like Keystone Cops.

Retreating, they reappeared in Coco the Clown masks. It was hard to tell whether they were intended to be figures of fun or if this was simply a directorial misjudgement. Either way, it had little to do with Verdi, still less his librettist Piave.

Gilda had to be clumsily kidnapped from astride the life-size zebra in her bedroom (her menagerie also included a toucan). Like the duke’s palace, it was gaudily decorated in red and gold designs by Rae Smith more redolent of Bollywood than Brentwood.

Rigoletto’s arrest by two heavily-armed British constables was doubtless intended to evoke the law’s use of excessive force based on colour. Uncomfortable, of course – but also irrelevant here. Indeed, so many superimposed details seemed to cloud the director’s intentions.

Eric Greene carried the title role with surprising grace, given the wide spectrum of attitudes he was supposed to strike. In mid-range, his baritone was flexible and clean, less so higher up where his focus was more diffuse.

His duet with Gilda was touching. She was Jasmine Habersham, who made a virtue of her light soprano in a poignant, delicately ornamented ‘Caro nome’. She also looked every bit the ingénue, kept apart and therefore out of her depth, even if she needed to soar more in ensemble.

Alyona Abramova as Maddalena in Opera North’s Rigoletto. Picture: Clive Barda

Roman Arndt’s self-regarding Duke seemed bent on Italianate tone at all costs, attractive enough but also mannered. Sir Willard White, returning to Leeds for the first time since 1984, injected authority as a stentorian Monterone. Callum Thorpe’s tattooed Sparafucile looked and sounded ruthless, pleasingly complemented by Alyona Abramova’s statuesque Maddalena.

They were certainly masters of the squalid landscape of Act III, with its corpse of a car, assorted detritus and shadowy lighting (Howard Hudson), a stylistic improvement on the tasteless décor earlier.

Despite the upheavals on stage, Garry Walker maintained a cool head and a decisive beat in the pit, and his orchestra reacted with discipline and confidence; the chorus was typically ebullient, if not quite as taut an ensemble as the orchestra.

But sight and sound were rarely synchronised: the director might have paid more attention to what is actually in the score. Opera audiences enjoy and understand history, even – given the chance – that of 16th century Mantua. They do not react well to having modern precepts constantly forced down their throats, especially when these have little or nothing to do with the original opera.

We still await the arrival of a director with the courage to be traditional in this work.

Martin Dreyer

Further performances: January 29, February 4, 11 and 19, then on tour until April 1. Box office:

Zebra crossing stage: part of a Rae Smith design landscape “more redolent of Bollywood than Brentwood”. Picture: Clive Barda