By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin never fails to enrich programming at the Philharmonie with rarely performed works. The first season under music director Robin Ticciati reveals his interest in probing the possibilities further with new concert formats.
Berlioz’s L’enfance du Christ, a “sacred trilogy” combining elements of oratorio, opera, and symphony as it imagines the flight of the Holy Family from Judea to Egypt, ushered in the holiday season with a staged performance Dec. 17. The production by Irish actress and director Fiona Shaw is officially a “scenic arrangement” (szenische Einrichtung) but includes partial sets and costumes and exploits the full space of the Philharmonie.
Staging religious works has become all the rage in the German capital since Peter Sellars mounted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunkchor Berlin in 2010. The Philharmonic, riding on its success, went on to perform the St. John Passion in another Sellars production, while the Rundfunkchor teamed up with impresario Jochen Sandig for a “Human Requiem” in which the choristers intermingled with the audience while singing Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem.
Shaw likewise aimed to immerse the viewers in the action of L’enfance du Christ. In an interesting touch, she juxtaposed the historically-costumed Joseph and Mary with choral singers in modern dress. As the parents struggling to save baby Jesus from King Herod’s order to slay male newborn, Sasha Cooke and Jacques Imbrailo circled the Philharmonie in a figurative pilgrimage, while members of the RIAS Kammerchor looked on from the stage as if themselves witnessing a historic event.
The production’s naturalism was often awkward, however, concretizing the plot in ways that detracted from the music’s spiritual dimensions. The narrator (tenor Allan Clayton) lumbered around the stage with various props, here carrying the Holy Family’s carpet after they have fled, there preparing a cradle for baby Jesus.
A Doppelgänger of Jesus as a young boy, performed by Jonathan Mücke, played with wooden toys downstage during the “Marche Nocturne” of Scene One and ran around the Philharmonie while Clayton traced him with a flashlight. Herod, meanwhile, emerged from a bed to the side of the orchestra, giving his decree in a robe and golden crown.
The intimate exchanges of Mary and Joseph, sensitively lit by Oliver Klühs, were more convincing, creating a kind of living nativity that was enveloped by Berlioz’s sensuous music. The Trio for Two Flutes and Harp of the trilogy’s third installment (“L’Arrivée à Sais”), in which spotlights were tastefully cast on the soloists, was another of the production’s high points.
Ticciati, meanwhile, brought the score to life through a combination of technical polish and dramatic intensity. The strings, playing with a minimum of vibrato, were sinuous but rich, the brass ideally timed even when the trumpets played from a balcony at the end of Scene Four in the first installment (“Le Songe d’Hérode”).
The young conductor, who is also music director of the Glyndebourne Festival, drew upon his flair for opera to create tension already in the pizzicati that open Scene One. Throughout the evening, he never allowed the pace to drag while maintaining the flexibility that Berlioz’s unpredictable rhythms demand.
Perhaps most importantly, Ticciati responded smoothly to and maintained a careful balance with the singers. Baritone Christopher Purves gave memorable performances as Herod and as the Father of the Family who offer Mary and Joseph asylum, combining beautiful diction with sensitive dynamic shading and a keen sense of characterization.
As narrator, Clayton at times struggled with the physical demands of the staging, but when standing still and facing the audience he brought forth a piercing tenor. Mezzo Cooke and baritone Imbrailo were a homogeneous pair as Mary and Joseph. Cooke imbued the role with a combination of fragility and strength, while Imbrailo verged on desperation upon arriving in Sais (a city in Egypt that is not mentioned in the Bible) and facing the rejection of the local Romans.
The RIAS Chamber Choir, prepared by Justin Doyle, sang with its signature combination of clarity and warmth. The female voices in particular evoked angels as they warned Mary and Joseph of Herod’s verdict at the end of the first installment, accompanied at first by only organ. The a-cappella final chorus, with singers carrying candles as the lights faded into darkness, provided a poignant last image.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional reception of Kurt Weill.