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

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 York Opera in HMS Pinafore, York Theatre Royal

Jack Storey-Hunter’s Ralph Rackstraw, Polina Bielova’s Hebe, centre, and Alexandra Mather’s Josephine in York Opera’s HMS Pinafore. All pictures: Ben Lindley

Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, York Opera, at York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or

THREE members of York Opera make important debuts in the company’s latest foray into Gilbert & Sullivan. They contributed significantly to the triumphant success of opening night.

Annabel van Griethuysen’s ingenious production mines a good deal more humour than is usually found in HMS Pinafore. Jack Storey-Hunter gives an extremely assured performance in the role of Ralph Rackstraw. Tim Selman steps up to the rostrum to conduct his first opera with the company.

But there is so much strength in depth in this company that you can virtually guarantee a really satisfying evening, whatever they do. So it is here. Good G & S relies on a sturdy chorus. The ladies – the First Lord of the Admiralty’s ‘sisters and his cousins and his aunts’ – seem to have welcomed some new blood and sing with immense conviction and presence. They are clearly enjoying themselves.

John Soper’s Sir Joseph Porter KCB surrounded by ‘his sisters and his cousins and his aunts’

The men are equally lusty, slightly older hands maybe, but none the worse for wear and all the more credible as hard-bitten tars. An innovation here is a semi-chorus of eight, four ladies, four men, who deliver three sea shanties, including an especially offbeat version of What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?.

The other two shanties are not quite so effective and, for the sake of continuity, one in each of the two acts would be enough. But the idea is excellent. It was typical of a production that goes out of its way not to rely on the traditional ‘business’ that so often dogs Savoy operas. Who has ever seen a sailor chased by a mouse here? Or Rackstraw having soothing cream applied to his wrists after being released from irons? There were countless such instances, most of them witty.

There are many old friends among the principals, none more so than John Soper as Sir Porter. Believe it or not, he has been with this company for more than 50 years, yet his baritone is as firm as ever. He struts his stuff superbly but is not above laughing at himself. When I Was A Lad was hilarious. He catches the eye whenever he appears.

Ian Thomson-Smith is another old hand with the company and his Captain Corcoran – albeit wearing commander’s stripes – does not disappoint. I Am The Captain Of The Pinafore goes with tremendous verve and he is a cheery soul throughout, even when he has to play straight man to Porter.

Ian Thomson-Smith’s Captain Corcoran with Anthony Gardner’s piratical Dick Deadeye

Jack Storey-Hunter’s Rackstraw announces himself in a firm, confident tenor, declaring his love for Josephine. He is not above re-joining his mates but maintains an admirable manner even when seemingly spurned by his intended. This was a most promising start.

First-night nerves can kick in unexpectedly and Rebecca Smith at first made a restrained Buttercup, but she sustained a perfect West Country brogue – emulated to a degree by the chorus men – and relaxed as the evening progressed.

Alexandra Mather’s Josephine followed a similar course. As the top of her soprano opened out in Act 2, so too did her personality. Both will progress over the five shows.

There are more than useful contributions from Anthony Gardner’s piratical Dick Deadeye and Polina Bielova’s effervescent Hebe, who ends up as Sir Joseph’s bride. Hers is a voice that we shall undoubtedly hear again. Fine cameos from Alex Holland’s bo’sun and Mark Simmonds’ carpenter round out the principals.

Alexandra Mather’s Josephine, the Captain’s daughter

Joseph Soper’s permanent set, with poop deck above and behind the quarterdeck, emblazoned with VR insignia, more than serves the purpose. It is backed up in similarly authentic style by Maggie Soper’s costume team.

Amy Carter’s carefully conceived choreography does not always earn the discipline it deserves. Doubtless it will improve with time, but better to cut the numbers and keep it tight than throw everyone into the ring for every dance.

Last, but certainly not least, is Tim Selman’s sizeable orchestra, which includes several established figures including leader Claire Jowett. They have rhythmic zest to burn. Occasionally Selman follows his soloists rather than lead them and tempos sag slightly. Otherwise, he keeps a firm hand on the tiller.

As the nights draw in and temperatures dip, I can think of no better way to warm your spirits than this rousing show. You dare not miss it.

Review by Martin Dreyer

The lusty-voiced Men’s Chorus in York Opera’s HMS Pinafore

York Opera head to sea in Gilbert and Sullivan’s love-struck HMS Pinafore at York Theatre Royal from November 16 to 19

Madly in love but kept apart by social hierarchy: Lovesick sailor Ralph (Jack Storey-Hunter) and the Captain’s daughter, Josephine (Alexandra Mather), in York Opera’s HMS Pinafore

YORK Opera will set sail at York Theatre Royal with Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore or The Lass That Loved A Sailor from November 16, steered by a new production team of Annabel van Griethuysen and Tim Selman.

Stage director Annabel and conductor Tim will be at the helm of a production at the Theatre Royal for the first time.

HMS Pinafore was G&S’s first big success, both in Great Britain and the United States, establishing their still undiminished position at the pinnacle of light opera in this country.

Although they had had significant success with Trial By Jury and The Sorcerer, the world of light opera in the 1850s and 1860s was dominated by the works of Jacques Offenbach, full of catchy tunes and brilliantly orchestrated. 

Breaking into this field of theatre and dominating it across the English-speaking world must be due greatly to the witty and topical libretti by W.S. Gilbert. In conjunction with Sullivan’s sparkling and tuneful musical settings, HMS Pinafore established the rock on which all the subsequent G&S repertoire would be founded.

Annabel van Griethuysen’s Carmen in York Opera’s Carmen at York Theatre Royal in October 2018. Now dietician Annabel switches from mezzo-soprano singing to stage directing HMS Pinafore

The story follows Ralph, a lovesick sailor, and Josephine, the Captain’s daughter, who are madly in love but kept apart by social hierarchy. The musical numbers, loved by young and old alike, include We Sail The Ocean Blue, Never Mind The Why And Wherefore and When I Was A Lad.

As usual with York Opera’s G & S productions, a healthy mix of youth and experience combines in the cast. New to the company are Jack Storey-Hunter in the leading tenor role of Ralph Rackstraw and Polina Bielova as Cousin Hebe. 

Well-known cast members in the line-up include Alexandra Mather in the leading soprano role of Josephine; John Soper as Sir Joseph Porter; Ian Thomson-Smith as Captain Corcoran; Rebecca Smith as Little Buttercup and Anthony Gardner as Dick Deadeye.

York Opera in Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, York Theatre Royal, November 16 to 19, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Sea-bound: Jack Storey-Hunter’s Ralph and Alexandra Mather’s Josephine in York Opera’s HMS Pinafore

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Opera in Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Heather Watts as Queen of Night in York Opera’s The Magic Flute: “Fiery coloratura spiced with menacing gesture”. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

The Magic Flute, York Opera, at York Theatre Royal, tonight and Friday, 7.15pm; Saturday, 4pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

AFTER 20 frustrating months, York Opera is back where it belongs – on the Theatre Royal stage. We may all rejoice.

Running an opera company is backbreaking work at the best of times. Covid has been making it a whole heap harder. Mozart’s last opera would not necessarily be an automatic choice after so long a lay-off and is certainly not an easy option. But the company has dug deep and delivers the goods in a splendid revival of John Soper’s traditional production, first seen in 2009.

In the distribution of laurels, there are many individuals to compliment. But one entity stands out. Derek Chivers’s 20-piece band, using an excellent orchestral reduction by Kenneth Roberts, takes the score by storm.

Hamish Brown’s Prince Tamino and Alexandra Mather’s Pamina. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

On opening night they began untidily, to be sure, but halfway through the overture there was no stopping them, inspired by a woodwind quartet of the highest calibre whose colourings and accuracy are a marvel throughout. Claire Jowett, a stalwart of so many groups, offers untiring leadership of the strings. One member, James Sanderson, slips in and out of the pit as player of the magic bells when not singing First Priest, a unique double act.

The singers clearly relish such a strong foundation. Foremost among them is Heather Watts, who returns to deliver another impeccable Queen of Night, fiery coloratura spiced with menacing gesture, a thrilling performance by any standards. David Valsamidis makes a witty, amiable Papageno, whose superb diction is allied to a warm baritone. Unlike some, he never forgets his audience.

Alexandra Mather is a fetching Pamina, whose emotions are conveyed not only by her clear soprano but also by complementary facial expressions, a valuable asset. Her Tamino is Hamish Brown, who takes the role that illness denied him last time round. His tendency to jerky movement undermines his princeliness, but his accurate if pinched tenor covers the ground well.

Monostatos might suit his personality better. That role goes to Ian Thomson-Smith, last time’s Papageno. He sings it musically but without quite the venom this nasty character demands. The Sarastro of Mark Simmonds is clad much like an orthodox priest; his bass is a little underpowered at the bottom of the range, but otherwise firm and decisive.

David Valsamidis: “Makes a witty, amiable Papageno” in his York Opera debut. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

Lesser roles are covered with distinction, reaffirming the company’s strength in depth. Clive Goodhead is an authoritative Speaker, doubling as an Armed Man (here described as Guardian of Fire), while Elizabeth Vile is a vivid Papagena.

I was much taken by the three Genies, Victoria Beale, Hannah Just and Maggie Smales – standing in for the usual ‘Boys’ – blending superbly like their rich white brocades, breeches and tricorns. Equally impressive are the spear-carrying Three Ladies, Annabel van Griethuysen, Rebecca Smith and Maggie Soper, a determined trio.

The chorus seems to have acquired some new blood and sounds fresh and committed. They are also very disciplined, moving with intent but keeping still when merely onlookers, which is easier said than done. I had forgotten how rich Maggie Soper’s costumes are, distinctive and a feast for the eye. A word, too, for Eric Lund’s nicely varied lighting.

John Soper’s own masonic-style permanent set fits the bill well: two panels of stars and planets divided by gold triangles and circle, with a chessboard platform in front. If it were a little closer to front-stage, some of the solo voices would resonate better than they do from further back. His production is now even more slick than before and more clearly organised; he merely needs to get some of the spoken dialogue better projected. But this is a cheering evening in so many ways and deserves widespread support.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Maggie Soper’s costumes in York Opera’s The Magic Flute: “Distinctive and a feast for the eye”. Picture: Benjamin Lindley

York Opera to return to York Theatre Royal after two-year hiatus with The Magic Flute

Alexandra Mather’s Pamina, Mark Simmonds’s High Priest Sarastro and Hamish Brown’s Prince Tamino in York Opera’s The Magic Flute. Picture: John Saunders

YORK Opera will return to York Theatre Royal after a pandemic-enforced two-year gap with Mozart’s The Magic Flute next week.

Sung in English to orchestral accompaniment, Mozart’s last great operatic masterpiece will be performed on November 2, 3 and 5 at 7.15pm and on November 6 at 4pm.

The story follows Prince Tamino and his quest to rescue his beloved Pamina from the grasp of her mother, the evil Queen of the Night, and return with her to the world of light presided over by Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis and Osiris.

Premiered in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, The Magic Flute has a deep and serious theme: the ultimate triumph of light and enlightenment over the powers of darkness and superstition. Yet the story of a Prince finding his true love in a world of dragons, magic bells and magic flute serves as an operatic pantomime too, making it the perfect introduction to opera.

David Valsamidis: Making his York Opera debut as bird catcher Papageno

York Opera’s stage director for The Magic Flute is John Soper, a long-serving member, baritone soloist and publicity designer, who has designed the sets too. Musical direction is in the hands of Derek Chivers, whose last appearance with the company was as musical director and conductor for Carmen in 2018.

Among the many soloists will be Mark Simmonds as High Priest Sarastro, Heather Watts as Queen of the Night, Hamish Brown as Prince Tamino and Alexandra Mather as Pamina, while bass David Valsamidis makes his York Opera debut as Papageno, the Queen of the Night’s bird catcher.

To complement these five major roles, a dozen more named solo parts ensure York Opera’s wide-ranging vocal talent will be on display.

Tickets are on sale on 01904 623568 or at

Heather Watts, as the Queen of the Night, left, and Alexandra Mather, as Pamina, in York Opera’s The Magic Flute. Picture: John Saunders

Meanwhile, a note from York Opera…

OPERA is possibly the most demanding of all the arts, especially for any young singers dreaming of becoming established performers.

Those setting out on such a road need reliable opportunities to learn and develop their craft both as singers and actors. Where are they to receive the support that they need?

Look at how York Opera responds to this need. This amateur opera group prides itself on its high standards and its determination to employ York and district orchestral musicians to accompany the productions of grand opera and other works, staged twice a year for more than 50 years.

Latterly too, York Opera has welcomed an influx of younger singers, who have complemented and extended the range of expertise within the group.

Alexandra Mather: York opera singer attended the Glyndebourne Academy in 2019. Picture: James Belloris

In addition, plans were in place to try out a handful of new stage directors and musical directors, moving on from their roles as assistants or repetiteurs. They were to have the support of an overall production manager, Clive Marshall, one of York Opera’s most experienced producers, and would have taken charge of four fully staged operatic excerpts to be performed at York’s National Centre for Early Music.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic brought everything to an abrupt halt. Now, nearly two years later, York Opera is almost back on track.

All these developments came under the umbrella of York Opera’s Stepping Stones project, one that received a boost from Australian soprano Danielle de Niese, whose home at Glyndebourne, in Sussex, has its own springboard: the Glyndebourne Academy.

This operatic development project aims to support gifted and talented young singers, and so far, two York Opera members, Andrew Powis and Alexandra Mather, have taken part, with hopes that others will do so in future.

Soprano Danielle de Niese: Letter of support to York Opera

Learning of this involvement, Danielle de Niese has provided a letter of support. “I was approached by the president of York Opera, Clive Goodhead, after a performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon at Glyndebourne Opera House. He explained that York Opera has a proud and firm reputation as a long-standing, highly successful amateur group up in Yorkshire.

“One of York Opera’s charitable aims is to provide opportunities for young singers, especially those who might entertain the idea of becoming future professionals. In this respect, its aims have much in common with those of Glyndebourne’s Academy programme.

“The latter is widely recognised as an amazing opportunity for young singers. Always massively oversubscribed, it represents a real achievement and outstanding opportunity for anyone who passes its auditions.

“York Opera, I am told, is delighted to have seen two of its younger members, Andrew Powis and Alexandra Mather, joining the project in recent times. I am most happy to offer both of these singers my best wishes for their operatic futures.

York Opera singer Andrew Powis, who has studied at the Glyndebourne Academy

“I am also more than pleased to offer my sincere appreciation to York Opera. It has my whole-hearted support as a vital early stepping stone for younger opera singers aspiring to be professionals one day.”

Alexandra Mather will be playing Pamina in The Magic Flute and around a dozen other principals and chorus members in next week’s production at York Theatre Royal are younger singers.

“Opportunities of this sort are vital if the United Kingdom is to provide reliable home-grown experiences as stepping stones for the next generation of professional opera performers,” says Clive Goodhead.

“Amateur groups of the quality and stability of York Opera deserve greater recognition and support themselves. The group is a registered charity (No. 700279), one of our aims being to educate in the art of opera. We are self-supporting, actively welcoming of new members and always seeking sponsorship.”

More information can be found at