Thursday, 8 December 2011

Berlioz's Cinematic L'Enfance du Christ

Hector Berlioz
This evening I attended a performance of L'Enfance du Christ, Berlioz's approachable oratorio concerning the flight of the holy family from Herod's bloodlust and their resettlement in Sais, in Egypt. Berlioz's music has a cinematic panache all of its own, the scores bursting with melodrama, mental pictures and many of the dramatic effects that one associates with modern cinema.

For example, this piece begins with a once-upon-a-time style recitative before dissolving into a prologue. At the end the narrator returns as the music reconstitutes the here and now with a sequence of simple notes. One can actually hear the cross-fading of images, suggesting the passing of time (rather like the end of The Shining, for example). This very same musical-cinemtaic idea of Berlioz's is used by Terence Malick to move into the final sequence of his recent film The Tree Of Life - a movement that suggests stepping from either the present or the period of the film into some alternative state.

Elsewhere there is a real mix of music that follows the drama closely, just as in an opera. The piece would be more operatic but for the sung portions being separated by lengthy stretches of orchestral music which have clear visual connotations: the prologue is a marching bass line, earmarking the core of the work as concerning the family's flight (complete with braying donkey, borrowed from that prior theatrical work of note Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream); choruses dissolve into orchestral stretches that suggest everything from infanticide to domestic bustle; angelic offstage choruses provide not only acoustic effects but also dramatic coups in the performance. This is typical of Berlioz's output at large, which is both operatic and in large orchestral realisations of familiar literature (by both Shakespeare and Geothe).

Berlioz's musical language also has a long resonance. Familiar traces of Puccini and Wagner can be heard at given moments (more than just coincidental fragments of melody, the melodic outline of O mio babbino caro (translated as 'o my beloved child', from Gianni Schicci) comes as Mary talks of her child and a motif from Wagner's Parsifal (an Arthurian legend of a naive hero) pops up as the child-saviour's birth is discussed. Berlioz is not at all shy of using what we might now think of as crude musical devices, such as diminished chords, to generate the melodrama just when he wants it, a technique familiar to a certain school of silent film piano accompaniment.

I was watching the Britten Sinfonia and Voices at the Queen Elizabeth Hall under the magnetic Mark Elder.  The orchestra had some stand-out wind playing, particularly in the often tiresome, interpolated flute duet with harp, which was here a real highlight. The principal horn and bassoon also deserve mention, characterful and alive but never over-pungent. The soloists, Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Roderick Williams and Neal Davies were uniformly superb, fully engaged with all this real and imaginary drama through exemplary singing.

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