Christmastime comes with its musical traditions, from sing-along Messiahs to Christmas carols to Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas is You”. And there’s no denying that shouting any of the above at the top of your lungs will immediately get you into the Christmas spirit. If, however, you would rather experience the sublime at this time of year, you should have been at Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica to hear the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the direction of Kent Nagano, along with some of Canada’s finest singers, perform Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ (“The Childhood of Christ”).

Not one of Berlioz’s best-known works, the oratorio tells the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. In Part One we hear Herod’s tormented nocturnal cry: in a dream he has been told that a child has been born who will destroy his throne and take his power. He consults the soothsayers who confirm that this is true, and tell him he must order the deaths of all new-born children. A chorus of unseen angels warns Joseph and Mary that they must flee with their son. Part Two depicts their difficult flight into Egypt. Part Three tells of their arrival in Sais and their eventual entrance into a modest Ishmaelite home, where they are fed, serenaded, and allowed to rest. There are solo roles for Herod, Polydorus, a centurion, Joseph, Mary, an Ishmaelite, and a narrator.

The work has its origins in a musical prank Berlioz played on his Parisian audience, whom he knew despised him and his bombastic musical ways. In 1850 he composed and had performed a work titled L’adieu des bergers (“The Shepherd’s Farewell”), which he claimed to be the work of a fictional 17th-century composer named Ducré. The Parisians loved it. It became the penultimate number in Part Two, which he composed next, and then incorporated into the rest of the work which was completed in 1854.

Indeed Parisians loved L’enfance du Christ, thinking Berlioz had finally reformed his histrionic ways, but the composer later explained that the story naturally lent itself to a more reserved musical treatment. Still, he noted the Parisian reaction, writing in his Memoirs, “It was received like a Messiah, the Magi nearly appeared and offered it frankincense and myrrh.”

Despite its sometimes tricky acoustics, the Basilica proved to be the ideal venue. Approaching the cathedral on a dark and snowy Montreal evening puts one in a festive yet solemn mood. And the space lends itself perfectly to the work’s subdued tone colors. The spare but striking use of woodwinds, the organ during the angels’ chorus, the offstage voices, the trio for harp and two flutes: all of these were wonderfully if subtly highlighted by Nagano, and shone beautifully in the Basilica’s cavernous interior. The ethereal sound of much of Part Two would not have worked nearly as well in the concert hall.

The fugal introductions to each of the three parts were perfectly constructed and conveyed, as was the standard Berlioz musical imagery: the “whirling dervish” music when the soothsayers consult the spirits (written in 7/4!); the nastiness of Herod’s command to let mothers weep while rivers of blood flow, where some of Berlioz’s trademark orchestral grandiosity appears; and the scurrying of the Ishmaelites to gather food and drink for the Holy Family, mirrored in the busy melodies. But the musical highlights really were the parts that weren’t typical Berlioz, like the celestial pianissimo unisons at the beginning of the final scene.

The singing was glorious. Special mention goes to tenor Pascal Charbonneau, in his role as the narrator. Mezzo-soprano Michèle Lozier as Mary and baritone Tyler Duncan as Joseph also deserve praise for the operatic drama and desperation with which they conveyed the trials of the flight to and arrival in Egypt. My only complaint is that baritone Gino Quilico, in the role of Herod, did not project the angst of the central aria of Part One with enough force. Granted the role is difficult, but he was too much in his score, and not communicating enough with the audience, especially compared to the other soloists. What could have been an absolutely spine-chilling aria was merely slightly troubling. The orchestra and Nagano’s fine conducting were responsible for conveying to the audience Herod’s angst and the resulting gruesome demand for bloodshed.

Charbonneau’s final solo was one of the most beautiful moments of singing I have heard in a long while: the tone, the control, the dynamics, the expression, it was all there. Along with the final, stunningly gorgeous chorus, Charbonneau left the audience in a trance, transported away from the hustle and bustle of shopping malls and muzak, to the heart of the Christmas spirit.