True holiday spirit can be elusive, amid the obnoxious commercial blur of a typical Christmas in the land of the figuratively free. But I happily absorbed a potent dose of it Saturday evening at the College of Charleston’s annual Yuletide Madrigal feast.
The event — repeated three nights running — showcases the talents of the CofC Madrigal Choir: 16 of the College’s finest singers, drawn from Dr. Robert Taylor’s nationally-recognized Concert Choir. You get a full evening of seasonal choral and instrumental music, interspersed along the course of a comic quasi-drama — all on top of a pretty classy dinner and decent wine (liberally poured like they don’t own it).
Affairs of this sort have become fashionable in the U.S. in recent decades, though the setting harks back to Elizabethan England. Some folks do it better than others, and the failure potential is high. I’ve attended a few flops — including one I was a part of. Pulling something like this off right requires talent, meticulous planning, and gallons of elbow grease.
The singers and supporting cast (guest players, serving wenches, and knaves) dressed up in period costumes (men in tights, anyone?). Other authentic trappings included the music itself, the stylized language and accents of the era, and re-enactments of old English yuletide customs. We heard “The Carol of the Boar’s Head” (which they actually ate back then), and snickered our way through a barrage of barbed “wassail” toasts carefully planned to roast selected guests — including yours truly, the critic. Revenge? Nah.
Even the evening’s drama was loosely based on a cherished relic of the era: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But tragedy morphed into comedy in this imaginative rewrite, nicely realized by an energetic cast of singer-actors … some of whom displayed real comedic instincts. Even director Taylor’s 11-year-old daughter, Kiri, proved to be a natural ham (just like her dad) in her cameo. All the slapstick, puns, and other perversions of the Bard’s original intent proved entertaining and often hilarious — though a couple of the gags and stunts fell a little flat, and there were a few awkward moments.
The food was pretty good, if not piping hot: roast duck with tasty trimmings. But not even the toothsome cranberry trifle we had for dessert was as sweet as the music. The opening choral processional left the singers scattered among the seated guests, and their pure, floating surround-sound left most of us feeling like we were part of the choir. The sheer beauty of these young voices and the heartfelt emotions driving them set spines a-tingle all over the room. A string duo plus harpsichord provided sprightly instrumental interludes.
The singers delivered the rest of their program — an appealing mix of familiar old carols and seasonal madrigals — in standard up-front array. Their hushed rendition of Coventry Carol drew a soft “wow” and what sounded like a strangled sob from somewhere behind me, and left more than a few of us dabbing at our eyes.
A cheap ticket this is not, yet every year, night after night, folks pack the place. Last year’s outing was filmed for statewide PBS broadcast on Christmas Day. It’s a fun, festive, and novel way to usher in the holiday season. I often approach the holidays with a sense of Scrooge-ish foreboding, but I’ve been attending these events faithfully for years … ’cause for me, they never fail to restore wonder and joy and spirituality to a holiday that sorely lacks such qualities for so many. Catch it next year if you can; bring a date you want to impress — and book early.
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