Ebenezer Scrooge you’ve got to love this guy. During the holiday season, in the secular world at least, the old money grubber is the second-most-popular mythic figure in the Western world, after Santa Claus and well ahead of the cartoon character the Grinch. Scrooge’s appeal in this country is that he discovers the Christmas spirit after a long, miserable life journey topped off by an astonishing epiphany.
It’s not surprising that Scrooge pops up on Washington’s dramatic and musical stages each December nearly as often as myriad productions of Tchaikovsky’s beloved “Nutcracker” materialize across the landscape.
Scrooge’s latest appearance here is an unusual one, courtesy of the Folger Consort, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s ensemble in residence. Augmented by a few extra musicians and joined by baritone William Sharp, the consort on Wednesday evening opened a short run of American composer Jon Deak’s 1997 musical narrative, “The Passion of Scrooge, or a Christmas Carol.”
Mr. Deak’s work is a little hard to characterize, and the composer’s description of it as a “musical narrative” probably is as close as one can get to accurately describing it.
It’s not an oratorio or an opera much of the dialogue is spoken, some of it supplied by members of the 10-piece orchestra. It’s not a musical it’s too short and has no pop tunes. It’s a little like John Cage falling into a brimming wassail bowl and emerging grinning from ear to ear with a puckish, post-ironic sense of humor.
Modern classical composers seem to have trouble making a commitment to composing listenable tunes for the contemporary audience, so they usually set about erecting thickets of dissonance around them. Mr. Cage got around this tendency a few decades ago by spoofing the whole process often quite seriously. Instrumentalists in Mr. Cage’s works were as likely to cough in rhythm as they were to play their instruments. This act got old in time, but at least it was an antidote to the atonal dreck of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, who, until recently, dominated the serious music scene, to the detriment of dwindling numbers of concertgoers.
Aware of recent musical traditions, or the lack of them, and writing for a more jaded contemporary audience, Mr. Deak has chosen for his theater piece an eccentric melange of available compositional techniques, including splotches of serialism and snatches of traditional tunes. As the work is conceived, the baritone is responsible primarily for portraying Scrooge and other major characters, such as Jacob Marley’s ghost. Meanwhile, the orchestra members repeatedly take breaks from playing to fill in all the bit parts, whistling like the wind, howling like ghosts, rapping on their instruments and making other weird instrumental sounds that you never learned from your violin teacher.
The result is not what you expected when you bought a ticket for “A Christmas Carol” presented by an ancient-music consort, but it is a surprisingly piquant and funny musical riff on an old holiday tradition. This may be as much because of the frantic onstage heroics of baritone William Sharp as to Jon Deak’s compositional raffishness.
Mr. Sharp is a wonder: acting, singing, yelping, grimacing and capering his way to Scrooge’s salvation with great effectiveness, carrying the whole piece with his powerful sense of the theater and the magic it can work upon a holiday audience. The instrumentalists, too, were in top form as they were called upon to do everything but jump on trampolines. Particular praise goes to indefatigable percussionist Joseph Connell, whose nonstop array of special effects included slamming doors and windows and rattling Marley’s chains.
Scrooge’s adventures were preceded by a roughly half-hour recital of 17th- and 18th-century instrumental and vocal music for the Christmas season, crisply performed by the consort on occasionally balky period instruments and joined by willowy soprano Julia Steinbok. What a delight it was to hear familiar tunes as they must have sounded to our distant ancestors so many years ago. Music from Englishmen Henry Purcell, Godfrey Finger and John Blow mixed with traditional pieces and compositions from the ever-popular Anonymous to conjure up a nostalgic feeling of Christmas past before the abrupt arrival of Dickens’ three spirits in the program’s second stanza.
Although Miss Steinbok got off to a weak start in the first song, an arrangement of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” her endearingly girlish soprano voice expertly wrapped itself around the tricky figures in Purcell’s “Lord, What Is Man?” and negotiated the rapid runs in the “Yorkshire Wassail” and the “Gloucestershire Wassail” with breathtaking expertise.
The Folger Consort’s program will be repeated three more times this weekend.
WHO: The Folger Consort
WHAT: “The Passion of Scrooge, or a Christmas Carol” plus 17th- and 18th-century Christmas music
WHERE: The Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE
WHEN: Tonight at 5 and 8; tomorrow at 2 p.m.
TICKETS: $34 to $38
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS