Saturday 10 December 2011

L'Enfance du Christ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

L'Enfance du Christ is a tricky piece to bring off well and, if not understood, can leave the listener feeling underwhelmed; as if the composer of The Trojans and La Damnation de Faust had somehow gone off. But all these works use a collage technique for dramatic purposes. Berlioz's dramatic constructions are best understood via a work like Romeo et Juliette where the characters are depicted by a variety of means (both vocal and orchestral), using a series of snapshots rather than continuous narrative. This technique even extends to The Trojans where, even though characters are embodied by singers, Berlioz feels happy to drop and take up a character as necessary (leaving a director having to decide in Act 4, for instance, whether to leave singers off stage when not singing or whether to invent extraneous business).

In L'Enfance du Christ we again have a series of snapshots, the characters are generally embodied by singers but the orchestra plays a huge role, not only in the instrumental numbers but in the way Berlioz colours the accompaniments. There is no particular dramatic development, simply a series of tableaux linked by a narrator. And, Herod's slaughter of the innocents apart, Berlioz chooses the more thoughtful episodes, he seems to have been aiming at a contemplative, almost spiritual feel for the piece; perhaps surprising in a man who was not particularly religious.

The role of the narrator is supremely important and on Thursday night (8th December) at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Britten Sinfonia under Sir Mark Elder had a very fine narrator indeed in the form of Allan Clayton. With his artfully disarranged hair and beard, Clayton looked as if he was in training for an old testament prophet (he is singing Handel's Samson later this year). But musically and textually he was impressively fluent and expressive. His sung French was convincingly melifluous and the high tessitura of the part seemed to hold not terrors.

Clayton made the narrations not so much the linking material as the very centre of the piece. This was particularly true of the epilogue where his passion, commitment and restraint combined with a beautiful line, made of a magical conclusion. In this he was ably supported by Sir Mark Elder who shaped the music beautifully and drew a fine performance from the Britten Sinfonia.

Mary and Joseph were played by Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams, both turning in nicely understated performances which got to the essence of the music; these solo roles are not showy and a singer must find other ways into the music, something Connolly and Williams did. Bass Neal Davies got the most dramatic roles, contributing a very vivid Herod and an equally dramatic Ishmaelite in the final part.

The chorus was formed of Britten Sinfonia Voices, a new professional choir trained by Eamonn Dougan. The programme described the choir as being made of young professional singers, though in fact the age range was rather larger than this. Vocally the group were impressive, contributing a very finely tuned account of the music which matched the Sinfonia's performance nicely. I could wish that British groups would take a leaf out of the books many continental performing groups as so many of the groups from Europe succeed in looking as stylish as they sound. Whereas Britten Sinfonia Voices, particularly the men, looked so casual as to seem almost haphazard.

The start of the concert was a very curious affair. Orchestra and chorus wandered onto the stage in an ad hoc way, followed by soloists and conductor, all very casually with people stood about chatting, as if we were witnessing the start of a rehearsal. There was then a 10 minute pause, where we sat there watching the performers socialising; when things started, 15 minutes late, there was no explanation.

The Britten Sinfonia were on great form Sir Mark Elder obviously has the feel of Berlioz's deceptively simple work. Elder ensured that all the various paragraphs were not only nicely shaped, but the the whole was built into a satisfying structure.

A moving and profoundly satisfying account of an all too rarely performed work.

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