REVIEW: Old World Music, Comedy from Renaissance Era Lights Up Christmas Revels - A Venetian Celebration



                                                                                                                                               Photo by Roger Ide

By Mike Hoban

It seemed appropriate that snow was still lightly falling last Saturday evening, just in time for opening night of the Christmas Revels – A Venetian Celebration at the Sanders Theater in Harvard Square. Not that it snows much in Venice, Italy – the setting for the 47th Christmas Revels – nor do the performances of the Revels necessarily bear any resemblance to any traditional New England Christmas celebration. But there is something (okay, the old world music and comedy that are trademarks of any Revels show) about this Cambridge Yuletide tradition that bring that same warm feeling as any of the traditional holiday shows, and the gentle snowfall just completed the experience.

Each year The Revels presents a different culture and its traditions centered on the Winter Solstice/Christmas. While last year’s Acadian-Cajun celebration – which told the story of the displacements of French citizens who immigrated to what is now known as Nova Scotia to Louisiana – was decidedly dark, this edition is a much lighter affair focusing on music and comedy. This year we travel back to Venice of the Renaissance era, where the Doge (Boston favorite Richard Snee), leader of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, is growing tired of his job, which mostly consists of sitting in judgement of every little matter in the city – from legal matters to who makes the best spaghetti bolognese. He is hoping to lift his spirits at the Festival of the Seven Fishes, but his second in command has deemed there be no “riff-raff” at this year’s celebration – meaning no actors and no comedians.

In fact, when a comic troupe auditions for the Festival, he tosses them in jail, and in the spirit of the Scrooge himself, also declares that “children should be seen and not heard.” Instead, he opts for the high-brow entertainment (wonderfully provided by a series of guest singers and musicians).

Discouraged, the Doge decides to check out of his official role, and after magically freezing the other players on stage in place, jumps into the canal and disappears. This leaves his humorless second to claim the title of acting Doge, much to the dismay of everyone. The comic troupe (Noni Lewis, Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell) will not be denied, however, and they concoct and execute a ridiculous escape that provides the “narrative” for the show. But as any Revels fan knows, the plot elements mostly serve as a connecting thread to the music – both Revels favorites and compositions from the 15th and 16th century Venice.

The program opens (as always) with charismatic baritone David Coffin taking the audience through the paces to learn their parts of the evening’s program, including the chorus of “The Lord of the Dance” – the 1963 English hymn written by Sydney Carter. That song closes out the first act, where the entire chorus from the production leaves the stage and joins hands with the audience in a serpentine dance that leads to the lobby for intermission.

This year’s program featured early music virtuoso Sophie Michaux, and world music practitioners Lysander Jaffe and Gideon Crevoshay, who performed a number of old world selections, including the hauntingly beautiful “Maria” (by the Corsican male vocal ensemble Barbara Furtuna), accompanied by Nathaniel Cox on theorbo – a 14-string lute that appeared to be about eight feet in length. There were also the usual favorites, including the spooky Abbots Bromley Horn Dance by the Pinewood Morris Men and the reading of The Shortest Day by Coffin. But it is the gorgeous harmonies by the entire cast (clad in amazing period costumes by Heidi A. Hermiller) that do the most to provide that warm holiday feeling.

Another great aspect of this production is the incredible venue, the Sanders Theatre. Originally designed to host Harvard commencements and lectures, the theater has been host to a variety of productions since 1895. It is acoustically perfect and the architecture inside and out of the 1,166 seat theatre is breathtaking. If you’ve never been to Christmas Revels, now is the time, A Venetian Celebration is a joy, and this is a terrific alternative entertainment for the holiday season. 

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