Andrew Davis conducts Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ at Hoddinott Hall

That this meditation on Christ’s infancy is still pertinent today, with its
themes of political ambition and religious intolerance, came across with
considerable force, not least through the ideal pacing from Andrew Davis
who steered the combined forces of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and
its Chorus through an almost uninterrupted 90-minute traversal.

Clearly, much of the success was also due to four outstanding soloists, but
their varied levels of communication raised questions, if not issues, about
the nature of a work which traces the biblical story from Herod’s dream,
through the flight into Egypt and on to the Holy Family’s arrival in Sais
as refugees. It’s a hybrid work that conforms to the conventions of
oratorio and yet rubs shoulders with opera. Indeed, one might suggest L’enfance du Christ is an oratorio wanting to be an opera – albeit
a gentle, pastoral one, its dramas (mostly evoked and narrated) contained
within a series of tableaux that occupy a mainly devotional mood.
Yet its few theatrical moments such as Herod’s scene with the mysterious
soothsayers in Part 1 and Joseph’s attempts to find shelter in Part 3
create an operatic dimension that simultaneously blurs distinctions of

This was strikingly apparent in the contrasting manner of delivery from the
soloists: Matthew Brook appeared to embrace the work as opera. He
inhabited his dual roles as a malevolent and paranoid Herod and later as a
compassionate Ishmaelite father with evident conviction, enjoying his
characterisations and seemingly transforming the platform into a stage. His
rich baritone wrapped itself with growing torment around his Part 1
soliloquy, and was sung so mellifluously he almost drew our sympathy.
Whilst there wasn’t quite enough menace or projection in his lower
register, there was enough cutting-edge timbre above and detailed
expression to bring off a persuasive performance that seared itself onto
the memory.

Berlioz characterises other roles less generously and which, arguably,
belong more to oratorio than to opera. Nonetheless, they were sung here
with clarity and nobility from Roderick Williams and Sarah Connolly as
Joseph and Mary. However well executed in terms of intelligent musicianship
and depth of experience, these were stand-and-deliver performances with
plenty of gravitas and fervour but an absence, at times of tenderness and
even fragility – possibly coming over better on the live transmission.
Doting parents? More like a visiting uncle and aunt and their first scene
together seemed too uninvolved to sustain dramatic tension. Connolly’s
voice is a less flexible instrument these days but her hardening of tone to
evoke desperation on the journey to Sais was well served.

Andrew Staples, as a clear-voiced Narrator, sang with polished tone
throughout – bringing a range of colour and subtlety to the role as if born
to it, singing off the voice with effortless control (‘Tous attendaient’
near the beginning was exemplary) and outlining events with a burnished
eloquence. His gentle evocation of the infant Jesus asleep en route to Sais
was simply stunning.

The BBC National Chorus of Wales was also in fine shape, whether as
Ishmaelites, soothsayers and shepherds, the latter catching the ear in Part
2 for an intensely wrought leave taking of the Holy family, its pppp dynamic scrupulously observed for the final verse. Even more
magical was an angelic semi-chorus purring repeated ‘hosannas’ and
‘halleluias’ off stage to wondrous effect and the work’s ethereal
apotheosis could not have been better judged – the chorus transcendent.

Let’s not forget the orchestral players who provide much of the work’s
cinematic detail – to which BBCNOW carried with obvious relish, Chief
amongst many felicitous passages included a superbly disciplined cabalistic
dance (with razor-sharp strings), unrestrained brass to convey Herod’s
terror and flute and strings bringing affection to frisky lambs by the
stable in Bethlehem. An exquisitely played Trio for two flutes and harp
confounded the idea that this passage robs Part 3 of momentum.

Yet it was momentum that Andrew Davis – a thoroughbred Berlozian – supplied
in spades, directing with demonstrable enthusiasm and flexibility, keenly
responsive to the music’s shifting colours and moods. From those strange
woodwind sonorities at the start to the closing a cappella
Christian message, the work’s characteristic restraint was lovingly
conveyed, tempi perfectly judged for the music, performers and venue.
Perhaps too, Davis is also The Ultimate Romantic.

David Truslove

Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ Op.25

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Roderick Williams
(baritone), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), Sir Andrew Davies (conductor),
BBC National Orchestra of Wales, BBC National Chorus of Wales (chorus
master: Adrian Partington).

Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff; Friday 15th February 2019.

product_title=Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
product_by=A review by David Truslove
product_id= Above: Matthew Brook

Photo credit: Gerard Collett