REVIEW: Revels’ ‘Venetian Celebration’ glitters

Reviews

12.27.2017

Xmas_2017_Incognito_Doge_RIde_650.jpg

Mezzo soprano Sophie Michaux and Concerto Incognito audition for the Doge of Venice (Richard Snee) in “Christmas Revels 2017: A Venetian Celebration of the Winter Solstice,” at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge. [Courtesy Photo/Roger Ide]

CAMBRIDGE – This year’s edition of The Christmas Revels veers off to Renaissance Venice where a glittering-robed Doge governs a lively group of singers, dancers and comedians. As always, several professional actors and vocalists are sprinkled among the large cast of local performers and musicians, to add zest to the long but lovely spectacle, enhanced by colorful costumes, scenery and stage magic that grows more elaborate with every passing year. The many numbers by the adorable and full-throated chorus of children singing, dancing and playing games, along with the adult ensemble , extends the age range of the players in the cast.

Patrick Swanson, the longtime director of the Revels, has happily mixed up the geography. Although the show explores the Christmas music of Italy, adding in the flavor of the Venetian court, along with the Commedia del’ Arte players, he has not forgotten the Revels’ traditions. To be sure, their voyage by ship from England to Venice was a long one, but the Pinewoods Morris Men in their familiar white garb, with rows of bells at their ankles, and the Orion Longsword Group, here dressed in Italian costumes, arrived by the end of the first act. Headed by David Coffin, veteran master of ceremonies, singer and recorder player, they led the audience in singing “Lord of The Dance,” and dancing out into the high-ceilinged lobby at intermission. Coffin not only headed the procession but joined in the figures of the Morris Dance to execute a high-jumping caper, no less agile than the other men.

The plot of the 2017 Revels has been borrowed from Shakespeare’s “Measure For Measure,” but rewritten in a less dour version. Richard Snee, in his second outing this season as a ruler (appearing earlier in the fall as the dotty Berenger in “Exit The King”), takes the role of the restless Doge, eager to be gone from his duties at the palace and out into the streets. After he hands over the Doge’s hat to his sanctimonious deputy and disguises himself in a black cloak and hat, he joins a troupe of disreputable commedia players led by the cut-up, Billy Meleady, another favorite of Revels’ audiences. As an actor, Snee combines the voice of authority with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and a sense of adventure. He’s willing to try anything, even taking the role of Il Dottore in a playlet with the comedians who are later jailed for performing without a license. Needless to say, it all turns out happily, with the Doge returned to his throne for the final celebration.

Music director Megan Henderson has gathered a superb group to accompany the songs and dances choreographed by Kelli Edwards, who heads the dance program at Milton Academy. Along with the flourishes, marches and fanfares by the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble, an accomplished band of Renaissance musicians perform the period music on an assortment of strange-looking instruments that include the theorbo, an amazingly long-necked lute, played by Nathaniel Cox; the cornetto, the ciaramella, and the zampogna, the traditional Italian bagpipe. The succession of musical numbers varies between the profane and the sacred, with the beautiful and moving “Maria,” among the most memorable, as performed by lead singers Gideon Crevoshay, Lysander Jaffe and Sophie Michaux.

Best of all was the sense of community shared by the strangers gathered in Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, a combination of longtime viewers, newcomers to the experience and the performers, led for nearly 3 hours by the genial Coffin. Together, we sang about the birth of the baby foretold by shepherds on a faraway hill, and asked God to “bless your house,” in hope for a year of peace in the world. If only it would be so.

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