Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
June 15, 2018

It has taken nearly half a century for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to give Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ a second shot. The Orchestra’s only other performance took place in September 1969 under the direction of Willem van Otterloo. That’s a long time to go without this charming, inventive and ultimately touching score. (Be sure to catch up with Clive Paget’s extensive and evocative article in the June issue of Limelight to find out more about the origins of this unique work.)

Sir Andrew Davis is clearly a devotee of L’Enfance du Christ, and conducts with empathy and efficiency throughout, allowing the unique soundworld of the score to shine forth. The wind instruments which are given prominence over the strings are on excellent form; well blended and never intrusive. (The Orchestra’s normal string complement is slightly reduced to match.) Along the way there are many evocative moments, such as the delightful trio for two flutes and harp in Part Three, which receives a performance full of panache.

Against this particular orchestral backdrop are placed considerable vocal forces. Of the half-dozen soloists, narrator Andrew Staples has the lion’s share of work. His attractive tenor is made for storytelling, drawing the audience in with his careful attention to textual detail and his natural ability to set a mood. Bass Matthew Brook also does excellent work in his two contrasting roles; firstly conveying the psychological tumult of King Herod, and by contrast, evincing the warmth and welcome of the Ishmaelite paterfamilias.

American mezzo Sasha Cooke’s warm, rounded voice is a perfect fit for Mary, ably communicating both her faith and her vulnerability. She is well partnered by baritone Roderick Williams whose unassuming stage presence and gentle vocal warmth admirably suits the part of Joseph.

Sydney-based tenor Andrew Goodwin impresses with the delivery of his small role as the Centurion from memory. His sweet, clear tone is an unalloyed pleasure. Here’s hoping at some not-too-distant date in the future some savvy concert presenter will offer him the role of the narrator in this work.

Shane Lowrencev (from whom I have heard good things previously) somewhat disappoints as the soldier Polydorus. A less blustery delivery and greater eye contact with his stage partners would further assist the dramatic impetus.

Berlioz was particularly creative in his use of the chorus in this work and being a man of the theatre delights in contrasts. Our first encounter is with the men of the chorus singing as soothsayers, no doubt reflecting the fascination that French society of the time had with the spirit world. Davis gives their cabalistic dance in 7/4 an appropriately exotic feel and within the emotional confines of the work, they are reasonably bloodthirsty in encouraging Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. The next choir entry is a chorus of unseen angels, also sympathetically sung.

Part Two brings the famous Shepherds’ Farewell which Davis handles with great delicacy but with a forward-moving tempo that eschews sentiment but allows for nostalgia. By today’s standards we are shocked by the anti-Semitism of the text rejecting Jews in the land of Egypt, but in the current political climate, it’s a timely reminder of the worldwide rise of xenophobia.

The crowning glory of the work is the epilogue in which the narrator joins the chorus in a radiant, unaccompanied chorus. Calling for long arcs of soft, pure tone, this chorus is hugely challenging. Strongly led by Davis, the MSO Chorus to its credit remains focussed on the other-worldly dimension of the music, producing a beautifully shimmering tone that provides for a magical conclusion.

Melbourne audiences are blessed that Davis has broken this long drought and led the MSO back to give such a convincing account of this extraordinary score. Begun at a card game, but ultimately reviving the fortunes of its hapless creator, L’Enfance du Christ is no ordinary Christmas bon-bon. Furthermore, its appeal to accept the other, to shatter human pride and to be filled with “pure, deep love” profoundly resonates with our own times. All the more reason not to wait another 50 years before the MSO turns its considerable talent to this marvellous work.

MSO plays L’Enfance du Christ at Arts Centre Melbourne tonight and on Monday June 18