Review: ‘A Christmas Messe’ at Folger Shakespeare Library

This time of year, it can be challenging to keep your spirits merry and bright through the commercialized din of holiday exhortations. Well, I may have found an antidote to the seasonal fog. Highlighting “Churchill’s Shakespeare” on exhibit in Folger’s Great Hall, the Folger Shakespeare Library presents A Christmas Messe for its holiday program.

From the very opening duet “Sub Arturo plebs” sung by soprano Crossley Hawn and mezzo-soprano P. Lucy McVeigh, one is drawn into a centuries-old world of English music and verse. The lively blend of instrumental, vocal and theatrical presentations thoroughly wrap the audience in otherworldly splendor.

A Christmas Messe is the title of a 17th-century play in which Beef and Brawn (boar’s head) battle for primary position on the table at a holiday feast. “Belly,” the narrator, played by Rick Foucheux, humorously describes the opposing forces as royal monarchs struggling to achieve dominance. His raucous interruptions of the musical program are a delight throughout the evening.

The consort is augmented by full printed texts of each selection sung by the quintet of exemplary singers, including tenor Oliver Mercer and baritones William Sharp and Dan Meyers. In addition, Meyers plays an ensemble of period replica woodwind instruments and trombone. Members of the instrumental group also include Mary Springfels (vielle, viol), Christopher Kendall (lute, citole), Robert Eisenstein (vielle, viol), and organist Webb Wiggins.

I have never heard such beautiful and haunting minor chords and bridges as presented during “Alleluia navitas” sung by Hawn and McVeigh. Overall, I was impressed with all the vocalists’ ability to navigate multisyllabic old English and Latin phrases. The collaborative efforts of artistic directors Eisenstein and Kendall created an entirely fulfilling production. “O magnum mysterium” opens the second act with deeply moving monastic chants certain to stir any beleaguered soul.

Wrapped in the wood and garland trimmings of the recreated “Globe” theater, this holiday gift is a welcome diversion–and your whole family will enjoy the experience.

Running Time: Two hours, plus a 20-minute intermission.

A Christmas Messe plays through December 23, 2018, at The Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets, call 202-544-7077 or go online.