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This production of ‘L’Enfance du Christ’ gets tangled up in current events

Kerry Wilkerson as Herod/Father, Elizabeth Mondragon as Mary and Jarrod Lee as Joseph in the In Series production of “L’Enfance du Christ.” (RX Loft)

Hector Berlioz’s 1854 oratorio “L’Enfance du Christ” offers the composer’s version of the flight into Egypt: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus escaping Herod’s decree to kill all of Bethlehem’s newborns. Paranoia, family separation, refugees crossing borders in search of asylum — the parallels with present-day crises abound.

But the In Series’s staging of the work Sunday at Foundry United Methodist Church might have gotten too caught up in drawing lines between the old story and current events. The lines drawn were so many and at such stylistic variance that they tangled into knots. There was real dramatic power in the contemporary resonance as well as some outstanding singing, but the production felt scattered. (The program will be repeated Saturday.)

Directors Steven Scott Mazzola and In Series Artistic Director Timothy Nelson turned the church into an immersive, reverse amphitheater, with singers moving among the audience. A small corps of audience volunteers functioned as extras. The mise-en-scene was explicitly modern: Roman centurions as immigration officers; Herod sleepless and fearful in a velvet bathrobe; a narrator in blazer and tennis shoes. But other elements conflicted. It was sung in English but in John Bernhoff’s incongruously late-Victorian translation. The staging often veered into murky symbolic conceits — bolts of cloth swaddling and unspooling, a ritualistically torn newspaper — or stiff, stylized movements that clashed with the realistic veneer.

The music, however, came to the rescue. Matthew Lynch’s reduced, nine-instrument orchestration, though sacrificing the original’s colorful effects (and the forgiving cushion of a larger string section), provided efficient accompaniment. Conductor Stanley Thurston had a challenging brief — the distance between orchestra and the singers sometimes created appreciable ensemble issues — but he paid diligent, responsive attention to the singing.

And the singing was excellent. Ian McEuen narrated with a focused, warm and consistently clear tenor. Baritone Kerry Wilkerson, in Berlioz’s provocative dual role of Herod and the sympathetic father who shelters the fugitive family, spun a smooth and dignified sound. As Mary and Joseph, soprano Elizabeth Mondragon and bass-baritone Jarrod Lee were well-matched, with gleaming, rich and dramatically vigorous voices. Joseph Kaz and Eliot Matheny made sharp impressions as Roman officers and joined Teresa Ferrara and Elise Jenkins in assured quartet. The Foundry UMC Chancel Choir was impressive throughout, with lovely, blooming tone.

Singing and score ultimately vindicated the production. Berlioz was a religious agnostic but a zealous believer in music’s power; in the final choruses of “L’Enfance du Christ,” the simplest means conjure the most transcendent emotion. The staging, in the end, stood still long enough for that conviction to shine through, making plain the work, and the grace, of compassionate acceptance.

‘L’Enfance du Christ’ will be repeated Saturday at 8 p.m. at Foundry United Methodist Church, 1500 16th St. NW.