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Christmas duty rewarded

12/18/1999 -  and 19/12
Hector Berlioz: The Childhood of Christ
Carmen Opranisu (Mary), Daniel Galvez Vallejo (Narrator), Simon Keenlyside (Joseph), Orlin Anastassov (Herod), Robert Lloyd (Householder)
London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, Colin Davis (conductor)

Berlioz's The Childhood of Christ fitted handily into the LSO's Berlioz Odyssey series just before Christmas. The two performances were not as packed as the various excellent and adequate Messiahs available in London. But Berlioz's version of the birth of Christ, based on apocryphal scriptural texts, paintings and French traditions, is more than an exotic alternative to Handel's oratorio.

Berlioz's fully visualized drama begins operatically with Herod wishing he were a goatherd instead of a tyrant, and ends with a scene of domestic cheerfulness as Joseph, Mary and Jesus at last find hospitality in Egypt at the home of an Ishmaelite carpenter. Where Handel offers a drama of ideas, Berlioz offers poetic realism which adapts the forms of oratorio into something that looks forward to Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. A reflective unaccompanied final chorus nods towards the Handelian and Lutheran traditions, but it also suggests a night of restful sleep for the refugees after their miserable flight and persecution (in an anti-Jewish chorus that seems to echo the Marseillaise).

Colin Davis' reading with the LSO was generally delicate and precise, but dramatic. The trio of two flutes and a harp, which reworks the quasi-mediaeval Shepherds' Farewell in near-eastern style, was particularly delightful. The London Symphony Chorus was wonderful, as the cheerful Ishmaelite family as well as as the familar shepherds.

The singers were all fine, and committed. Daniel Galvez Vallejo, standing in for an indisposed Ian Bostridge, sang with a bright tone that seemed out of place at times, but found plenty of meaning in the narrative. Carmen Opranisu and Simon Keenlyside were a serene, musical Mary and Joseph. Orlin Anastassov, last seen at the Barbican as the Pope in Benvenuto Cellini, was a sinister, heavy Herod. Robert Lloyd was sympathetic as the Ishmaelite householder.

H.E. Elsom



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