Blood will have blood: Verdi’s Macbeth by York Opera

Verdi’s Macbeth by York Opera, photo by Ben Lindley

Verdi’s first and most bloody, supernatural of his Shakespeare adaptations is in capable hands with York Opera, who revisit this dramatic chorus opera this autumn for the fourth time in their history. With Storm Babet rolling in as their external backdrop, the company’s confident production relies upon the clear skill of an impressive, experienced cast and crew. Uplifted by an equally adept orchestra, this is a truly striking rendition of the well-known tale of desperate ambition.

“Now the murderer creeps like a phantom through the shadows.”

John Soper’s set design evokes Celtic circles echoed by the Steampunk cogs of Maggie Soper’s witch costumes. Belaying a traditional red-and-black palette for more muted teals and purples, the set conjures up the family tartan of Sir Walter Scott, and perhaps vicariously his own curiosity in demonology and witchcraft. Sung in English (by way of early modern English, Italian and French) and featuring a variety of eras and styles in the costumes, this production crosses place and time to create a liminal, disorienting atmosphere as mists and mystical prophesies surround, fill and eventually choke the Macbeths, played by the impressive Sharon Nicholson-Skeggs and Ian Thomson-Smith.

“Open your mouth, hell, and swallow all creation in your womb.”

John Soper’s stage directrion gives weight to particular dramatic moments through stillness; Banquo (Adrian S. Cook) singing to his son Fleance (Noah Jackson), and the whole ensemble singing in soulful mourning around their murdered king. The simplicity of these arrangements adds a gravitas to the story that is often chased away in favour of busy depictions of madness, and a frenzied focus on the lead couple. Here, we are forced to sit with the deep grief felt by the court. The emotional force of this event, and of course the Macbeths’ hand in it, is palpable. When a stage full of people are belting out this requiem of woe directly around the body, you can’t help but feel it.

Leon Waksberg makes a memorable debut with the company as Malcolm, enriching some of the more beautiful harmonies arranged for the male characters. The night is ultimately in the hands of Nicholson-Skeggs, whose otherworldly voice and apparently self-sourced costumes are nothing short of iconic. Her whip-sharp lashes of Verdi’s more broken, violent lines for Lady Macbeth perfectly capture the urgent emasculation of her husband as they spiral out of power and control. The show is a must-see for a graceful, enlightening version of the play you think you know.

Macbeth is playing at 7pm on 20 and 4pm on 21 October, at York Theatre Royal, running at 3 hours including an interval. Tickets and further information available here.