in: Reviews

November 22, 2014

Daniel Impressed in Trinity’s Den

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By this point it is fair to say the Boston Camerata has a “house style.” One expects them to unearth music with ancient provenance, or at least ancient roots, and invest it with unexpected energy and immediacy. Its most recent endeavor is a speculative realization of a medieval mystery play on the subject of Daniel presented in Anne Azéma’s  immersive, subtle staging and under her musical direction at Trinity Church. Not only did it rise to the level of excellence we expect from the Camerata, it had at its heart a remarkable and uncanny performance from Jordan Wetherston Pitts as the title character that raised the experience from excellent to especially memorable.

The play itself, the Ludus Danielis, comes from Beauvais, France, about 50 miles north of Paris. Copied in the early 1200s, it has both words and monophonic music; according to Artistic Director Anne Azéma’s notes, it also has some fragmentary stage directions and interpretive indications. The play has been re-edited by Azéma from the original source for this performance, with assistance from Music Director Emeritus Joel Cohen. The text is in Latin, and can be read online ahead of time at the Camerata’s website. However, I don’t recommend doing so. Read in isolation, the text it is unpromising. It wanders, lurching from event to event, and is frequently downright undramatic. No point in bringing it with you, either: in the dark of the Church I was unable to follow along with the text, so that long stretches of language flowed past without registering. This turned out to be a pleasant benefit. It lent the evening an exotic character, allowing you to observe a ritual whose plot you know but where the details of the action were frequently unclear. The story is quite schematic: Balthasar preens and parties; words appear on the wall; Daniel says something about them and Balthasar is chastened, then suddenly dead. The imposing Darius appears, intrigue places Daniel in danger with lions, but he is divinely rescued. That’s really all you need to know.

The evening opened with a handful of pieces on liturgical texts that gesture at the shape of a mass, starting with a “Deus in adiutorium” and ending with an “Ite missa est” and benediction. Most of this prelude came from the same Beauvais sources, though others were from Gregorian chant, or the Notre Dame school. It served to immerse the audience in the medieval sound world before the story begins; it also created a continuum, from fairly austere chant to more florid melismatic music, and then even some drones and organum, preparing one for the very free treatment of music in the play itself.

As has been their wont for some time, Camerata adorned the music of the play itself with fiddle (well, vielle) and percussion accompaniment that has a rhythmic drive and folksy swing that sounds Appalachian at times. I have no idea how authentic this approach is, but it hugely successful, scrubbing away the fustiness that single-line medieval music has clinging to it. Shira Kammen played the vielle and the harp, and Karim Nagi, the percussion; they produced music that was simultaneously rock-solid and free, as if improvised.

The play is ultimately a triptych of power as manifested in three men: Balthasar (the always reliable tenor Jason McStoots) has been king long enough that it has corrupted him: there is a brief but surprisingly intense dance for Balthasar by Indrany Datta-Barua that suggests the decadence at court in manner that is both compelling and disturbing. Darius is the strong conqueror, played by Joel Fredricksen, whose deep bass voice has such a rich resonance you almost feel each individual vibration of his vocal cords as a distinct event. Daniel… well, Daniel is something else again. Until his initial appearance, the concert was pleasant enough, but when he appeared from within the audience, the piece suddenly crystallized around him.

Tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts’ biography says he is a “newcomer” to Boston, despite having an MA from Boston University. I expect we might see more of him, if the qualities of his Daniel can be found in his other work. His voice is vulnerable but confident, with a rich, warm tone that sacrifices no clarity: immediate, but with an otherworldly quality. When Daniel begins explaining the words on the wall, you needn’t understand exactly what he is saying: his tone conveys his understated authority, and he is entirely convincing. The play suddenly becomes about truth-telling, bearing witness, and acknowledging the strange spell this young man casts. The Daniel story is, of course, also a prophecy of the savior to come: in the text, the sudden appearance of this prophecy seems abrupt and tacked on. But when this Daniel began singing “Behold, the holy one comes,” he gave us his first smile, as if he had been waiting all night to tell us.

Jordan Weatherston Pitts, Daniel; Jason McStoots, Belshazzar (Joel Cohen photo)

Jordan Weatherston Pitts, Daniel; Jason McStoots, Belshazzar (Joel Cohen photo)

This moment depends on stagecraft as well as acting: the stage direction is credited to Azéma and the lighting to Peter Torpey. The results are expert, as a sequence of tableaux that emerge from the dark and persist in the memory. There are no tricks here: the effects do not insist on themselves. Azéma and Torpey have made expert use of the space: the action often moves out into the aisles and on rare occasions in other locations around Trinity Church. It retains a liturgical sense—the air is heavy with incense throughout the evening. Torpey’s lighting often raked over Pitts from the side, giving him a distinctly Caravaggio-esque appearance. Pitts had El Greco hands, which he uses iconographically; his hands speak clearly even when you cannot understand the Latin he sang. The costuming was simple—most of the chorus dressed in plain black, but Balthasar wore a fez, Darius sun-glasses; it may sound silly and post-modern, but there were no quotes around these gestures: they are basic symbols that did their job well. Daniel was costumed in khaki street clothes; his casual modern quality set him apart in yet another way from all the others. The stage pictures were strong and memorable, though there were a few moments where the massed choristers movements are not exactly fluid.

The vocal forces were significant: students from the Longy School’s Early Music Department joined the Camerata, along with a fair number of child singers  from the Trinity Choristers and the Boston City Singers, whose pure treble sweetened the mix at various points. As expected from the Camerata, the vocal production was rounded and sweet, but flexible; no air of scholasticism hung over this music, though the rhythmic vigor of the instruments might mixed well with some edgier vocal production.

The evening ended with a brief postlude, combining a call to “let the church rejoice” with a rather sillier song about the ass who came to Bethlehem, both with musical refrains in the program so the audience could join and add their voices to the evening as it came to a joyous end. The Play of Daniel will be presented once more in Trinity Church on 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

3 Comments

  1. I, too, thought the instrumentalists, viellist Shira Kammen and percussionist Karim Nagi, totally rocked; thanks, Brian Schuth, for highlighting their contribution.

    As for the “authenticity” issue: we have no notated accompaniments from the period for medieval monody. Zippo. So everything we do along those lines is, of necessity, made up, hopefully in a musical and intelligent way. What Anne Azéma was trying to do (successfully in my opinion) was to contrast the purity and quasi-austerity of the purely liturgical chants at the beginning with the music of the play itself, whose melodic style appears to derive in part from minstrelsy and secular popular music of the day, where instruments were known to participate.

    The same approach carried over into her staging: Anne presented the liturgical celebrants in church vestments, switching to functional, “modern” black garb for the play proper. Personally, I am delighted to observe this kind of unity of vision in an important work of music theater.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 22, 2014 at 12:31 pm

  2. Great to have been a part of this excellent production. The children added a wonderful, appropriate element. Years ago I took part in a very different production of Daniel with Fred Renz and the Ensemble for Early Music in New York. I also revived a few other medieval plays with Fred from the Fleury Playbook (Play of Herod, Slaughter of the Innocents, Raising of Lazarus) where I learned more about the particular style of declaimed chant necessary to make these plays work. For me Daniel has some of the greatest tunes of all. The choice of French pronunciation of the Latin text gave the words a wonderful color. Anne made intelligent choices for staging and costumes which worked, and brought the drama to life. It was obvious that the Boston public appreciated our efforts!

    Comment by Joel Frederiksen — November 24, 2014 at 9:49 am

  3. I’d like to add that Shira and Karim AND Joel Frederiksen were all just fabulous. Jordan Weatherston Pitts was astonishing. I hope he sings in Boston again soon, and often. Bravo to all. What a great event this was! Brava Anne Azéma!

    Comment by Susan Miron — November 24, 2014 at 7:31 pm

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