Founded in 1971 by John Langstaff, an early and close associate of Quadrivium, and now under the directorship of Paddy Swanson and the capable musical leadership of Megan Henderson, Revels endures as one of the most significant musical legacies to survive the formative period of Boston’s early music performance scene during the heady years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The group has flourished into an institution that has offshoots in nine cities across the United States. Its annual centerpiece Christmas Revels is just as much a wintertime staple in Boston as Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker or Handel and Haydn Society’s Messiah, and for good reason. This writer attended “Venetian Celebration of the Winter Solstice” last night at Sanders Theater, in a run that continues through December 27th.
The languid perfumes of Venice’s elegant palazzos, winding canals, and bustling squares have been lingering heavily in the Bostonian air this past year. The Boston Early Music Festival’s season activities were dedicated to Venetian works or works about Venice, highlighted by the North American premiere of André Campra’s Le Carnaval de Venise (1698-99). Revels, for its part, has assembled a talented crew of professional and amateur instrumentalists, singers, actors, dancers, and adult and children’s choruses – the latter a particularly charming addition.
What follows is a pastiche of sorts—a light-hearted gallivant through Venice (set design by Jeremy Barnett) with a loose plot involving, among many others, an avuncular undercover Doge (Richard Snee), a hilariously down-and-out fugitive commedia dell’arte troupe (Mark Jaster, Noni Lewis, Sabrina Mandell and Bill Meleady), and a shipwrecked company of English Morris dancers (why not?). Boston’s legendary bard and multi-instrumentalist David Coffin was a dashing Master of Ceremonies. This zaniness was punctuated throughout where dramatically appropriate by performances of Renaissance and Baroque Venetian music and company dance numbers (choreographed by Kelli Edwards). Performers also engaged with folk traditions from Venice’s Mediterranean neighbors as well as from the city itself.
It was because of this structure that I was immediately reminded of the pasticcios of the Italian baroque, and of the parodies and opéra-ballets of 17th-century Paris, where dramatic episodes featuring dialogue are separated by and flow seamlessly from and into large-scale, extended divertissements that involved troops of dancers, choruses, soloists, and onstage musicians. In the words of baroque scholar Rebecca Harris-Warrick, “…each unit has a separate cast of characters and its own plot… Often, however, an opéra-ballet has more unity than its separate plots imply. Not only is there always some kind of overarching idea, but the work may have a logical sequence, or there may be some kind of epilogue that ties the work together.” Revels’ creative sojourn to Venice, intentionally or otherwise, lies very much in this decidedly baroque genre of dramatic music.*
Revels found its true voice in the folk repertoire. Perhaps the most touching performances of the night came from folk singer Gideon Crevoshay, whose fastidious research into Corsican and Sardinian singing traditions illuminated the darkened Sanders Theater as he led the Revels Chorus in Chjama à Gabriellu, Libera me, Domine, and Maria with radiant beauty. Lysander Jaffe’s exploration of the folk hymns of the Dalmatian coast of Croatia shimmered in Nevijska Koleda. The Revels choruses of adults and children (the latter called “The Revels Ragazzi” in the program) were in prima forma throughout the night—the children’s chorus displaying musical games from Venice with impeccable Italian diction. Sophie Michaux proved at home in the Monteverdian repertoire playing her eponymous character La Sofia, her singing only rivaling her enthralling onstage presence. A banda of professional yet playful historical instrumentalists composed of Daniel Meyers (woodwinds), Nathaniel Cox (cornetto and theorbo) and Simon Martyn-Ellys (lutes and theorbo), and Fabio Pirozzolo (percussion) commented from the wings. In part, because of the of electronic assistance, every instrumental and human voice projected with clarity.
The audience too played a central role, becoming its own character in the narrative. Revels productions are by nature experiential, and the audience participated in music-making throughout the evening. At one point, the audience sang a Shaker tune (again, why not?) and quite literally danced into intermission, a brass ensemble playing from the balcony.
It is inconsequential that Revels Venetian Celebration is not necessarily the first thing that one would think of as “Historically Informed Performance,” and Revels makes no such claim to that effect. Rather, Revels is authentic to its own venerable tradition, now dating back nearly half a century. The authenticity Revels seeks in its performances is not through the careful recreation of the music of the past—though there was plenty of that—but instead, fidelity to its founding culture and general ethos through an evocation of the time and place featured each year, as well the company’s tireless devotion to its audience, many of whom return year after year; that is as much a part of a Revels event as the stage performers.
Through its careful stewardship in performances like this year’s example, Revels has nurtured a vibrant community and a rich, participatory performance art that embodies the experimentation, accessibility, and excitement of the Early Music scene in Boston during the third quarter of the 20th century that so many institutions seem to have lost. The celebration makes for a very charming Yuletide evening.
*Rebecca Harris-Warrick. Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera: a History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. p.208-209
Singer and scholar Ian Pomerantz dedicates himself to the performance, preservation, and transmission of early music and Jewish music.