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Hark, the ghosts of Haddon Hall

40th season of Christmas Revels brings songs, a startling story, and a few surprises

The cast of Christmas Revels rehearses at Sanders Theatre, which is standing in for an English hall set for demolition around Christmas 1920. The cast of Christmas Revels rehearses at Sanders Theatre, which is standing in for an English hall set for demolition around Christmas 1920. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2010

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This year, they’ll summon the Ghosts of Christmas Revels Past.

For its 40th season, the celebratory Cambridge event will commune with the specters of its predecessors in England. “It’s an interesting juncture for Revels,’’ said artistic director Patrick Swanson, who also directs this year’s show.

One of the influences on the Christmas Revels in the 1970s was a Victorian engraving of an imagined medieval celebration at a real Derbyshire manor called Haddon Hall. The picture ended up on the cover of “The Christmas Revels Songbook’’ and the first Revels LP. In reality, though, Haddon Hall was derelict for roughly 200 years until the Duke of Rutland began a renovation between the wars.

“The question is why, after all that time, did he take it on? And my thought is that the ghosts of Haddon Hall persuaded him,’’ Swanson said.

When performances begin tonight, Sanders Theatre will stand in for Haddon Hall circa Christmas 1920. The duke comes by for a look before the manor is torn down to make way for a new road. He’s startled to find the ghosts of Haddon Hall emerging from the walls to start their annual celebration of the Winter Solstice. Can they convince him to stop the demolition?

The cast will sing and play music from England’s medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian eras, the same periods that inspired the very first Revels, in 1971. Music director George Emlen said the show will as always be a balance — of classical music and vernacular song, of new pieces and old favorites, which patrons insist on, of carefully rehearsed performance and audience singalong.

“There are certain things you can count on, and we would be in trouble if we didn’t use them,’’ Emlen said. “On the other hand, I think people also count on being surprised.’’

The challenge of the 2010 show, Emlen said, is that “I don’t have any time restrictions on what period to pick music from. The restriction is cultural. It has to be English. But to hop from the medieval to the Renaissance to the 19th century really mixes it up music-wise. It’s not a problem for me, except that the musicians have to be versatile. Our viola de gamba player also has a baroque cello, so she can switch.’’

Since 1971, of course, the Revels has expanded both artistically — adding music and arts from a wide variety of world cultures — and organizationally. This year there are Christmas Revels in nine other cities, including New York, Washington, and Portland, Ore. In fact, this year’s Haddon Hall theme was first hatched for a Portland, Ore., show a few years ago, and Swanson developed it for this year’s Cambridge performance.

Shows in those cities are organized by independent nonprofits that pay a fee to Watertown-based Revels Inc. and attend an annual winter retreat to plan shows, share marketing ideas, and trade suggestions for guest artists. This year’s three-day event was at a monastery in Scottsdale, Ariz.

It’s not a “Dunkin’ Donuts relationship’’ with the other cities, Swanson said. “We don’t stamp out shows.’’

The Haddon Hall-themed show was already recorded for a CD last March. “Welcome Yule: An English Christmas Revels,’’ the 24th Revels CD, features 19 musical numbers, many of them new to this year’s show. Three Christmas Revels staples — “The Lord of the Dance,’’ “Dona Nobis Pacem,’’ and “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol’’ — were recorded live during last year’s performances.

“Recording ahead makes a lot of economic sense, but it’s a real challenge, because you have to get your ideas together much sooner than you would normally,’’ Emlen said.

Recording early allowed the CD to be prominently featured in a popular music catalog before the holidays. And because they included so much of the current show for the first time, “we think we’ll be able to sell a lot of CDs in the lobby,’’ Emlen said.

Revels Inc. has an annual budget of $1.3 million, with seven full-time staffers and five part-timers. Like other arts organizations, it has made tough moves in the down economy, including staff salary freezes and furloughs and eliminating a popular free summer event, Swanson said. But the Christmas Revels has not suffered in production values, he said, and other events like the autumn RiverSing on the Charles continue.

With 20 years as artistic director, Swanson has been one of the main keepers of the flame since founder John Langstaff’s death in 2005. Another, longtime executive director Gayle Rich, will retire in March, and a replacement has been selected and will be announced before then. Swanson talks of growing the group’s educational programming and maybe even a steampunk show to keep the organization moving forward.

He said the key to Revels’ endurance, though, is in the three or four generations that appear together on stage each year and the degree to which the audience feels a part of the show.

“I’m coming to the conclusion that the most valuable part of what Revels does is, we create a model for community,’’ Swanson said. “The more that society is becoming digitized and individualized, that it is becoming somewhat solitary for people, then the experience Revels gives is going to be at a premium.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

THE CHRISTMAS REVELS

Directed by: Patrick Swanson. Presented by: Revels Inc.

At: Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Dec. 29. Tickets: $15-$52 at the Harvard Box Office, or

www.revels.org.