Berlioz - L'Enfance du Christ

Bozar, Brussels, Sunday December 21 2014

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Vierge Marie: Stéphanie d'Oustrac. Saint-Joseph: Lionel Lhote. Hérode: Paul Gay. Le père de famille / Polydorus: Frédéric Caton. Le récitant / Centurion: Yves Saelens. Orchestra & Chorus of La Monnaie, Reflection Vocal Ensemble, La Monnaie Children’s Choir.

Pendant dix ans Marie, et Joseph avec elle / Virent fleurir en lui la sublime douceur, / La tendresse infinie / A la sagesse unie.

Berlioz trying to stay awake
“Sagesse” is probably not a word you’d usually apply to Berlioz, whose music is always full of surprises, often quite startling ones; but “sublime douceur” and “tendresse infinie” seem to sum up well the score of L’Enfance du Christ, one of his milder efforts.

Sunday afternoon’s performance at the Bozar in Brussels showed little sign of conductor, Ludovic Morlot having recently stated:

"I can only note that the orchestra and I have not succeeded in sharing a common artistic vision”.

He will be leaving at the end of the month, having served only two out of five years as musical director of Belgium’s Royal Opera. Stéphanie d’Oustrac was a vocally flawless Virgin Mary, round and dark in sound, though looking oddly detached. Lionel Lhote, someone I’ve often admired in Brussels, was irreproachable as an elegant Joseph (elegant vocally; I’m not so sure about his Dickensian evening outfit) perhaps the best I’ve ever heard him yet. Paul Gay, towering over the conductor even though the latter was standing on a podium, was far better employed here than as Gounod’s Méphistophélès at the Bastille, though still lacking the one or two lowest notes called for. Yves Saelens was a sweet, delicate lyric tenor. Frédéric Caton did what he had to do. And the orchestra, once warmed up, was on its best behaviour.

Christ in Brussels
I did write, regarding Morlot’s conducting of Britten’s War Requiem in the same hall, that “the main shortcoming […] was, to me, lack of dynamic variety. It was mostly loud to very loud…” Once again, it seemed to me he might have taken advantage of the Bozar’s acoustics to play with more delicacy and less tendency to cover the singers. And as usual with Morlot, there were times when I could personally have done with more urgency. But apart from that it was a nice, warm performance, very suitable for Christmas (think “sherry commercials”), and warmly received – so no hard feelings, apparently.

The only question is how much simple piety hard-boiled atheists can take in a hot hall after a substantial Belgian lunch without nodding off. “C’est très beau,” said my neighbour. “Mais qu’est-ce qu’on s’en fout.”

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