CAMBRIDGE — “Who let the Doge out?” is the tag for the 47th annual “Christmas Revels,” a broad hint that Cambridge’s traveling celebration of the winter solstice has this year plopped down in Venice. It’s Revels’ first show set in Italy since 1999, when it took over Leonardo da Vinci’s Florence workshop.
The story is straightforward but smart. Ruler of Venice, the Doge (Richard Snee) is expected to preside over the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes. But as petitioners argue over the merits of everything from the “Mona Lisa” to pasta puttanesca, not to mention matters of “homeland security,” he decides to slip away and visit his subjects incognito, leaving the throne to a killjoy vice-Doge (Michael Chase) who proclaims that “comedians” are not welcome in Venice.
That could prove problematic for the Doge, since he runs into a quartet of commedia dell’arte players (Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster, Noni Lewis, and Sabrina Selma Mandell) who’re in need of a Dottore for their scenarios, and they conscript him into their troupe. But then they fall afoul of the vice-Doge’s guards. Will the Doge wind up in the ducal dungeon? Will the players get out of jail in time to present Revels’ traditional mummers’ play in the second half of the program?
Meanwhile there’s a Christmas Eve festival of singing and dancing in the Piazza San Marco. Jeremy Barnett’s set ranges Gothic arches on one side and Romanesque on the other, with the campanile of the basilica, tilting precariously, in the middle. The Venetian music includes works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Claudio Monteverdi, and Salamone Rossi, but, Venice being the crossroads of the Mediterranean, we also get numbers from Catalonia, Campania, Calabria, Corsica, Sardinia, Trent, Croatia, and Turkey.
Highlights — really too many to mention — include Nathaniel Cox’s cornetto adaptation of an air by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, the Calabrian tuna-fishing song led by the ageless David Coffin, the searing harmonies of the carols from Corsica and Croatia, and the powerful singing of Lysander Jaffe, Gideon Crevoshay, and a vivacious Sophie Michaux. The children, here the Revels Ragazzi, pay tribute to La Befana and play the usual games, but the funniest number, an Adriano Banchieri madrigal, finds the Coro San Marco imitating dogs, cats, cuckoos, and owls.
And the commedia dell’arte players do turn up to present the mummers’ play, in which Pantalone (Jaster) forbids his daughter Isabella (Lewis) to marry her beloved but impoverished Arlecchino (Meleady). Columbina (Mandell) suggests they fake Isabella’s kidnapping by pirates so they can extract a ransom from Pantalone. They get caught, of course, but the Dottore (Snee) makes it all right, and after he reassumes his position as Doge, the punishment of his vice-Doge fits the crime.
All the “Christmas Revels” favorites are back: “Lord of the Dance,” the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance,” Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day,” and “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol.” There’s no room in the booklet for song translations, but most of those can be found in Revels’ new CD, “Tutta Bella!”
The Christmas Revels
Directed by Patrick Swanson. Music direction, Megan Henderson. Set, Jeremy Barnett. Costumes, Heidi Hermiller. Lighting, Jeff Adelberg. Sound, Bill Winn. Choreography, Kelli Edwards. Presented by Revels. At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, through Dec. 27. $10-$75. 617-496-2222, www.revels.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org