We were told in the program notes last night for "The Plays of St. Nicholas" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall that the saint was in fact the bishop of Myra, a town on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, in the 4th century A.D.
The gap between those days on the shores of the Mediterranean and today at the North Pole would seem to be almost as broad a gap culturally as geographically -- from Constantine to Clement Moore. But somehow this ancient man's prowess at miracles and the extent of his generosity caught the fancies of centuries of Westerners as those of few other saints ever would; a cult developed that would eventually be hitched to Christmas.
In the three brief church dramas -- really vignettes -- put on by the New York Ensemble for Early Music, we pick him up in France of roughly the 12th century, remote both from our times and from those of the subject. There is no mention of Christmas, which then was still thought primarily to concern the birth of Christ.
These modest and appealing little works, which will be repeated tonight as part of the Kennedy Center's holiday celebration, are retold in a musical and dramatic idiom that falls short of the language of opera but goes considerably farther than, say, that of charades. The plays are, in this order, "The Three Daughters," "The Icon of St. Nicholas" and "The Three Students," all in Latin. Each retells the story of a miracle of St. Nicholas.
There will be nothing strange about these works for those many who have become taken with earlier revivals of works from that period, such as "The Play of Herod" and "The Play of Daniel." Those were brought to popularity by the late Noah Greenberg and his legendary New York Pro Musica Antiqua. Frederick Renz, who reconstructed these plays and heads this group, was a member of the Pro Musica.
A sample of the ingenuous dramatic style comes in the first tale, where a father has lost all his fortunes and his three daughters will have to turn to prostitution to survive -- that is, of course, until St. Nicholas intervenes. Prostitution as the subject of a church play? And one that is recommended for children?
Well, yes. And the reason is in the fun with which it is all worked out. The lament of the three daughters, for instance, consists of rhyming lines of song of 15 syllables, divided into groups of two and three by a refrain of seven syllables. All this is sung with much bemoaning by the daughters as the three accompanying vielles (ancestors of the violin) drone away as if in sympathetic vibration. But the minute the bags of gold, St. Nicholas' miracles, are thrown upon the stage, those droning stanzas become much shorter and vibrant. The bright bells and drums start sounding away. This is the kind of compressed expression that, only a century later, would produce exalted art in the works of Chaucer.
The performances, if not exactly the last words in polish, were full of good spirits. Surely one mishap from last night will not be repeated tonight. Surely it will not seem intolerably picky to record that as the singers and players marched in procession from the aisles onto the stage they plowed straight into their sets and knocked them flat on the floor. That must have been a Kennedy Center first.