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Saturnalia Veneziana

George Washington University Lisner Auditorium
12/05/2009 -  & December 6m*, 11, 12m, 12, 13m, 13, 2009
The Christmas Revels (An Italian Renaissance Winter Solstice Celebration)
The Washington Revels: Emma Jaster (Smeraldina), Morgan Duncan (Il Doge di Venezia, La Befana), Elizabeth Fulford Miller (La Dogaressa, Music Director), Greg Lewis (Executive Director, Lorenzo de’ Medici), Marc Lewis (Piero de’ Medici), Oran Sandel (Leonardo da Vinci), Jane Bloodworth, Shauna Kreidler, Joanna Franco Marsh (Solo Vocalists), Rachel Carlson (Solo Vocalist, Assistant Music Director)
Jamie Sandel (Violin), Piffaro Renaissance Band, La Danza Tradizionale, Cutting Edge Sword Dancers, I Trombadori di Venezia (Brass Ensemble), La Capella di Cantori (Adult Chorus), I Giovani Gioiosi (Teen Chorus), I Ragazzi Allegri (Children’s Chorus)
Roberta Gasbarre (Stage Director), Colin Bills (Set and Lighting Design), Gil Thompson (Stage Manager), Lois Dunlop (Costumes), Steve Cosby (Technical Director), Charlie Pilzer (Sound Designer), Dave Gevanthor (Sound Engineer), Eric Annis (Production Manager), Terry Espenschied (Stage Technician)

O. Sandel (© Sheppard Ferguson)

The Washington Revels has been a popular and thriving cultural institution in Washington for more than twenty-five years. They are a community-based organization producing staged concerts of traditional music, dance, and drama from many cultures and eras. Besides the “Christmas Revels,” they also hold a “May Revels,” a “Spring Celebration,” a “Summer Solstice Festival,” and a “Harvest Dance.” The “Christmas Revels,” however, is by far their grandest and mostly widely attended event. In reality it is a celebration of the Winter Solstice, which includes Christmas.

The Roman tradition of celebrating Christmas and New Year’s incorporates two pagan feasts, the Saturnalia and the Sol Invictus, but this approach has significantly influenced how this Christian holiday has been celebrated all over the world for centuries. This year’s “Christmas Revels” was a celebration of the Italian Renaissance and set in Venice. It included a set of stock characters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Doge di Venezia e La Dogaressa, La Befana (a witch who leaves a lump of coal in the stockings of bad children), and even Lucrezia Borgia. There is semblance of a story line, just enough to set the musical numbers, which hang like colorful holiday ornaments on an evergreen tree. This year’s story concerns a party given by Da Vinci to which all of the important citizens of Venice are invited. He is found asleep and unprepared to receive guests, so he entertains the company by comically philosophizing and demonstrating some recent inventions (the ones that never worked) like his flying machine. Oren Sandel humorously plays the character of Leonardo in broad strokes. The role of Lorenzo de’ Medici, strongly animated by Greg Lewis, is devised as more or less of a Master of Ceremonies, who openly communicates with the audience and leads them in the communal rounds, sing-a-longs, and the traditional “Lord of the Dance” in which the company forms a “Conga Line” with the audience and dances their way into the lobby for intermission. This routine has nothing whatever to do with the Italian Renaissance, but it is a popular tradition of “The Christmas Revels,” and the audience, in general, loves to participate.

There are two other characters of major importance to the story line: The Doge of Venice and the witch La Befana. Morgan Duncan gives a grand portrayal as “Il Doge,” and is simply hysterical in the “travesti” role of the witch. My Sicilian father said he and his siblings always found a lump of coal in their stockings along with the traditional tangerines and candies. This was apparently a favorite joke of my grandfather to let the children know, that besides Father Christmas, La Befana had also made a visit!

The choral music selections ranged from traditional Renaissance carols like an early version of “Tu scendi dalle stele” (a shepherd’s bagpipe carol), “O Sanctissima” (a Sicilian carol), and “Adeste Fidelis” to the motet “Sicut Cervus” by Palestrina. Less familiar items such as “Il Coprifuoco” (the curfew), the madrigal “Il Bianco e Dolce Cigno,” (the White and Gentle Swan) by Arcadelt, and “Lodate Fancuilette” by Razzi were also included. The singing of the various choirs was quite wonderful, especially when the entire company was singing. The Children’s Chorus (I Ragazzi Allegri) was particularly affecting in “The Legend of La Befana.” The musical preparation and direction by Elizabeth Fulford Miller was superb.

Of particular note and merit were the various period instruments that were employed, like the bagpipe, dulcian, shawm, recorder, sackbut, harp, and zampogna (Italian bagpipe). Equally noteworthy of course were artists who played them. Joan Kimball and Christa Patton were simply amazing in the way the made their bagpipes melodic and mellifluous. The very handsome young Jamie Sandel, who in addition to playing his violin with distinct virtuosity, looked as if he had stepped right out of a Botticelli painting. There was an equally adept Brass Ensemble (I Trombadori di Venezia) stylishly led by Robert Posten.

Period folk dances and sword dances are also incorporated into the production and they greatly enhance the performance. The icing, however, on this rich holiday confection is the excellent set, expert lighting, sumptuous costumes, and imaginative stage direction. Colin Bill’s classic Venetian flats, backdrop, and staircase are very effective and could just as easily serve as a set for Verdi’s Otello, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, or Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers. He has lit the production in a subtle but highly theatrical manner. The costumes and hats are feast for the eyes. They are colorful and elegant with rich brocades and velvets, giving the impression of walking through a Renaissance art gallery. Director Roberta Gasparre has a flair for beautifully arranged stage pictures and tableaux, and she is sensitive to what are dramatic stagings and what are concerted musical numbers. She achieves happy transitions through both. Special mention must be made of stage manager Gil Thompson and production manager Eric Annis, whose joint competence and experience kept this very difficult show running flawlessly on cue.

I greatly enjoyed this year’s “Christmas Revels” and found it a welcome relief from the usual round of Nutcracker’s, Messiah’s, and Candle Light Carol Vigils. If you are in Washington during the run of the “Christmas Revels” you will find it well worth attending, and a rousing way to celebrate the season.

The Washington Revels

Micaele Sparacino



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