Macbeth, Grand Theatre, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

Tim Albery's intriguing new production of Verdi's Macbeth has a 1940s feel to it, suggestive more of a wintry Eastern-bloc borderland than Scotland. It's the first of Opera North's spring season of three Shakespeare-inspired operas, created on one multi-purpose set with shared design elements, and so far Johan Engels has proved that "scenic-lite" doesn't mean less.

Bleakly monochrome, save for vivid splashes of blood, the set is a blank canvas on which the witches perch to witness their prophecies unfold. Out of it a door opens to reveal a tomb and, in the apparition scene, a ghostly world beyond. Avenues of half-dead trees give Birnam Wood a constant presence, while Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes – greatcoats, evening dress – veer from tones of shadowy grey to sombre shades of black.

Rows of moveable black chairs provide a frame for the chorus – sinister men faceless in black balaclavas during Banquo's murder-scene, or a clutch of witches clicking away at their knitting (black wool, of course). The principal trio of sisters are central to the action, as Verdi intended. As spectral midwives they gloat over what is presumably one of Lady Macbeth's miscarriages, triumphing over the arrival of Lady Macduff's royal progeny, tiny crowned bundles.

Robert Hayward makes a handsome, haunted Macbeth, full-toned and precisely articulated in his splendid delivery and compelling in his gradual mental disintegration. Antonia Cifrone gets right into the killer role of Lady Macbeth, commanding vocally and dramatically, but not at the expense of a certain seductiveness.

The smaller roles are exceptionally well cast, with Ernesto Morillo Hoyt weighty and flexible in bass tone as Banquo, and Peter Auty an eloquent-voiced Macduff. The chorus, clearly well trained by Bernhard Schneider, sing with terrific conviction.

Richard Farnes is impressive in conjuring the dark atmosphere and thrilling, rich colours of Verdi's score, the orchestra blazing in intensity but admirable also in its ability to distil the work's inner tensions. There isn't a single moment that strikes a false note. After his murder and burial it is the king's shiny black shoes that are left on the near bare stage, for Macbeth to fill. Down to the last detail, Albery's production is thoughtful and penetrating, the evening absorbed by the enthralled audience in pin-drop silence.

Touring to 21 June ( www.operanorth.co.uk)

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