The week in classical: The Marriage of Figaro; Mahler Symphony No 8 review – phenomenal

Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex; Royal Albert Hall, London
Mozart’s divine comedy is a shimmering feast, while Mahler’s epic symphony, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, brings redemption to a packed Royal Albert Hall

As an antidote to turning back clocks and dark days, Mozart is always a right choice, in this instance especially: the heat of Seville, conveyed by light shimmering on an Islamic-Christian palace, rich with golds and ambers, makes Glyndebourne’s staging of The Marriage of Figaro a fabulous visual feast (thanks to Christopher Oram’s designs and Paule Constable’s lighting). Revived in the summer, now with a mostly new cast, Michael Grandage’s 2012 production is one of two main stagings for this autumn’s Glyndebourne Tour (the other is La Bohème), on the road between now and the end of November.

Quite apart from reaching a wider audience, a key strength of the tour is a willingness to nurture young talent. The conductor of Figaro, Stephanie Childress, is 23 years old. As a violinist she attracted attention in BBC Young Musician in 2016 and 2019. Now her podium career has taken precedence. Her focus and poise resulted in a performance of lithe vitality, detailed and assured. With the constant stop-start dialogue, which has to feel as fluent and realistic as daily conversation, timing is all. The use of historically informed performance elements – natural trumpets, skilfully embellished continuo playing on fortepiano and cello – resulted in an ideal balance between stage and pit. It bowled along freely and wittily.

Dressed in hippy-disco flares, velvets, waistcoats, floral kaftans, the household of Count Almaviva might have stepped out of an Iris Murdoch novel: a group of people, comfortably off, whose only occupation is to fall unsuitably in and out of love, whatever the moral consequences. The updating, especially in this modified staging – no revolving set, no arriving by car in the overture (the curtain stays down) – has been adroitly revived by Ian Rutherford and his team. If some of the acting was borderline ham, the game chorus’s bopping and boogieing a touch toe-curling, no matter. Singing was uniformly excellent, from Henry Waddington’s seasoned, smug Bartolo to Charlotte Bowden, a Jerwood Young artist, in the small but critical role of Barbarina.

Nardus Williams, a soprano with a growing reputation and boundless appeal, returned as the Countess, with requisite dignity, grace and fire. George Humphreys’s Count, hip-thrusting and sleazy; Alexander Miminoshvili’s canny, clever Figaro; Madeleine Shaw’s imperious Marcellina; Ida Ränzlöv’s gangly Cherubino, created a convincing ensemble. Mozart’s divine comedy stands or falls by its Susanna. Soraya Mafi, a rapidly rising star, is perfection, diction clear, manner funny and sharp, voice at ease in all the role’s demands. Catch this Figaro if you can.

Vasily Petrenko conducts Mahler’s Symphony No 8 at the Royal Albert Hall.
Vasily Petrenko conducts Mahler’s Symphony No 8 at the Royal Albert Hall last week. Photograph: Andy Paradise

Known from the time of its premiere by the nickname Symphony of a Thousand, Mahler’s Symphony No 8 (1906) exhausts the lexicon of big. Any attempt to follow the argument of the work’s sprawling two-movement shape is confounded by the music’s epic, 90-minute sweep. Eight soloists, three adult choirs, two children’s choirs and an outsized Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – several hundred musicians in total, a number quite impressive enough without attempting to reach a mythical thousand – performed to a packed Royal Albert Hall last weekend, under the baton of Vasily Petrenko.

This symphony traverses all life and ends, via the closing scene of Goethe’s Faust, in heaven. From the gargantuan crash of organ at the start, voices launching into “Veni creator spiritus”, to the phenomenal final climax, this is music of powerful physicality. Every member of every choir was drilled to the highest standards: the Philharmonia Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, City of London Choir, Tiffin Boys’ Choir and School Cantorum of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, the last two singing their contributions from memory. Above the many tiers of singers, an “offstage” brass ensemble took the highest position, for sonic and visual effect.

The Albert Hall felt as if its only purpose was to house this grandest, if most uneven, of endeavours. Petrenko kept the momentum up, with brisk speeds and clean textures. Some especially lyrical vocal writing is given to the mezzo-soprano, persuasively sung by Jennifer Johnston. The three sopranos, Sarah Wegener, Jacquelyn Wagner and Regula Mühlemann, contralto Claudia Huckle, tenor Vincent Wolfsteiner, baritone Benedict Nelson and bass James Platt completed the admirable solo line-up. The event was delayed by two years because of the pandemic. Since then, Petrenko’s own transition from chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to music director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has been accomplished. For anyone mourning the loss of large-scale, mind-shattering events in the past two years, this was redemption.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Marriage of Figaro ★★★★★
Mahler ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ ★★★★


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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