Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ is a sacred trilogy around the story of the Holy Family as they flee their homeland and travel from Judah to safety in the town of Saïs. The three-part oratorio is marked by contemplative vocal sections, but also by highly dramatic interludes, such as the tremendous trombone fanfares that accompany Herod’s order for the Massacre of the Innocents in the first section. While the choir gives a resonant background on its own, they also frame the soloists’ intimate narratives.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

As a composer, Berlioz was best known for his monumental orchestral and choral works. As such, the quieter and contemplative interludes of L’Enfance surprised his listeners at its 1854 premiere in Paris. Indeed, prior to that performance, as a hoax, he had passed off The Shepherds' Farewell chorus as a work by “Monsieur Ducré”, a fictional Baroque composer whose identity he had devised. The ruse succeeded, and the pastoral chorus was acknowledged as a terrific success. One audience member, who disliked any rousing bombast she associated with Berlioz, even insisted that “Monsieur Berlioz could never write anything as charming as this.” So much for a bad rap!

Yet, the work paints insightful and intimate human elements in successive tableaux around the story of the baby Jesus. We learn first of the weariness of the ruler, Herod, and his order to slaughter every newborn child in the land; then hear of the soothsayers’ “blind fanaticism” which harps on that terror. Later, there are insights into Joseph and Mary’s’ emotions as they leave Bethlehem; then, to the graces of the shepherds who embrace them; and finally, the warm welcome extended to the Holy Family at an Ishmaelite’s dwelling in Saïs. One account of a performance in 1863 actually saw audience members shedding tears at the end of the performance, to which Berlioz responded: “How happy am I when I see my audience crying!”

In the role of the Narrator, tenor Andrew Staples set the stage with superb voice control and pointed eye contact. He drew attention to the “divine counsel” that the Holy couple would acknowledge from the stable. As Herod, accomplished bass-baritone William Thomas was confronted with the haunting insecurity that “the Child will dethrone me” and gave desolate expression of what he felt as “a never-ending night” before ordering an insidious crime that would ultimately target Jesus. While the woodwinds and strings jiggled and looped like Herod’s unsound mind, Sir John Eliot Gardiner also loosened his body movements and swayed left to right on the podium in some passages, clearly in keeping with a certain “spirit of darkness” the libretto carries. When, in the role of the Soothsayers, the Monteverdi Choir sang, “Pity not the cries nor the tears / Of their despairing mothers. / Rivers of blood shall flow,” their delivery was tight and superb; the threat felt seriously frightening.

Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg sang a lyrical Mary with a wide range of expression; the gifted Ashley Riches had the role of her devoted Joseph. The joy that the two took in their infant Jesus was palpable in both singers’ deliveries, and when the angels’ chorus gave this: “The powers of Heaven / Will ward off your path / All mortal encounters,” the expanded sound was nothing short of celestial. Among orchestral interludes, the oboe, flute and harp sequences were particularly compelling. Finally, the most familiar melody of the work, The Shepherds' Farewell, heard when Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus leave Bethlehem, was an animated and beautifully-articulated sequence. I can’t think of a more fitting way to launch the 2021 holiday season.