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Reviews

18 Feb 2019

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

A weekend commemorating the 150th anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) entitled Berlioz: The Ultimate Romantic was launched in style from Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall with a magnificent account of L’enfance du Christ (Childhood of Christ). The emotional impact of this ‘sacred trilogy’ seemed to gain further weight for its performance midway between Christmas and Easter, neatly encapsulating Christ’s journey from birth to death.

Berlioz: L'enfance du Christ, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

A review by David Truslove

Above: Matthew Brook

Photo credit: Gerard Collett

 

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 genre.

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.

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