As a second weekend of protests against the Trump regime filled Copley Square, the Boston Camerata returned on Sunday afternoon to Trinity Church to “revisit” the medieval liturgical drama known as The Play of Daniel. Henry Hobson Richardson’s neo-Romanesque church was, as the program booklet suggested, a fitting site for this deliberately modern version of the early-thirteenth-century Latin work. It was also fitting, as director Anne Azéma noted in brief opening remarks, that the performance should have been taking place as a crowd (of mostly younger people) protested outside, their shouts and chants occasionally audible within. For the play, in her view, offers a warning to rulers of the “limits of their power,” connecting the people of Beauvais circa 1200 with those of Boston in 2017, who are “still looking for” just and lawful government.
The program booklet for Sunday afternoon’s performance announced the event as “Daniel: A Medieval Masterpiece Revisited.” Whether “revisitation” referred to the Camerata’s revival of this production, first performed in fall 2014, or to the play itself, was unclear. But because this performance appears to have largely replicated the original one, including much the same cast and staging, I will forebear from offering a lengthy review. I did not see the original performance, but Brian Schuth’s review (read it here) seems to convey its character very well. Besides sharing his admiration for tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Daniel and bass Joel Frederiksen as Darius, I would add praise for tenor Jason McStoots’s expressive singing and acting as the doomed Belshazzar. The Camerata proper was assisted by the Boston City Singers, students and alumni of the Longy School of Music of Bard College, and the Trinity Choristers, some of them making up a very well trained and vivacious children’s chorus.
Whether the original really was “a youthful celebration in music,” as Azéma suggested, including dancing and playing of instruments, seems to me unknowable. This production, although incorporating some exuberant shouting and singing, even some unexpectedly sensual dance, pays more than lip service to the religious character of the original, framing the play itself within a “liturgy from Beauvais,” that is, a prelude and postlude made up largely of several types of chants. (These, incidentally, did not include the Te Deum that the original play calls for at the end.)
This Daniel does more with less, jettisoning the fancifully costumed lion dancers and small orchestras of semi-medieval instruments that can be seen in other productions. Instead we have simple costumes and Peter Torpey’s beautifully spare lighting. There is no stage; the action, such as it is, is ingeniously matched to the architecture of the church (and thus will need to be carefully worked out when the production travels next year). Among the many striking features of this production is its effective use of the splendid acoustic of Trinity. This allowed Camila Parias to be heard clearly and radiantly at the end, as an angel singing from the rear balcony (she was also an exquisite Queen to Belshazzar in the first half).
The cast enters silently, filing into the choir of the church, and throughout the “prelude” the music, most of it originally unharmonized chant, remains austere. But the selections grow increasingly elaborate, concluding with a brief bit of two-part Notre Dame organum (a type of harmonized chant). All this was beautifully sung; I was especially impressed by the soloists in the Gregorian alleluia Justus ut palma and the Parisian Benedicamus Domino, which were both given in a free but lively manner, without the dragging that can make this celebratory music sound like a dirge.
Azéma’s version of the play itself relies heavily on the addition of instrumental music, which modern performers find indispensible in this repertory (you can read some discussion of that here). This element is limited, however, to a single string player (Shira Kammen, on vielle and harp) and one percussionist (Karim Nagi). Both employ the orientalizing approach that has long been in vogue among modern performers of medieval music, mixing with what now and then sounds almost like bluegrass inflections in some of the string playing. More often, however, the effect reminds me of neoclassic Stravinsky, as the improvised accompaniment adds a pandiatonic sheen of sound, with complicated cross-rhythms, to the original modal melodies. This was especially true, it seemed, during the elegant South-Asian- or Middle-Eastern-inspired dance of Indrany Datta-Barua, which unfortunately was not clearly visible from my vantage point (not every presenter reserves good seats for reviewers).
However anachronistic the dancing and instruments may be, the added music in this production was more disciplined, more unified in conception, than in others that I have heard. Not everything is accompanied by instruments, and an exquisite moment occurs when, for instance, Belshazzar or Daniel is left to sing a lament all alone. A particularly striking effect is created by having the men of the chorus hold out notes as a sort of drone to accompany Daniel’s translation of the famous “writing on the wall” in florid plainsong. These inventions reveal real sonic creativity on the part of the director and performers, more meaningful to these ears than improvisations which tend to echo things heard elsewhere and sometimes distract attention away from the original melodies.
One problem which I don’t think this production has solved is that of the text. (This issue received some attention when I reviewed another production; see the comments here). I noticed members of the audience trying to follow the synopsis in the program booklet. But no complete text and translation was provided. It’s a shame for the soloists to sing so clearly and expressively when most of the Latin is untranslated. Perhaps this is one reason instrumental accompaniments seem necessary; no one is
following the words, and after one or two stanzas (the music tends to consist of short songs with multiple verses) most listeners need something else to sustain their interest. The main outline of the story is clear enough in this production, and supertitles would probably ruin the lighting design—nor is there any obvious place to project them within Trinity. But could it be that the absence of intelligible words is an essential element in this type of production, for all its originality and effectiveness? Would actually knowing what the characters are saying eliminate some of the mystery which for many listeners seems part of the appeal of medieval music?