A scene from The Play of Daniel as it appeared at the Cloisters
(Photo credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Daniel’s salvation in the lions’ den isn’t the only miracle being performed at The Cloisters. The real miracle is that a thousand year old work still has the power to amaze, fascinate and move a twenty first century audience with its wit and reverence. The Play of Daniel, a medieval music drama from Beauvais, France, produced by Gotham Early Music Scene, is being given a sumptuous revival in the Museum’s Fuentidueña Chapel, a vaulted-ceiling space with very clean acoustics. Turned into a theater with multi-level platforms, painted in colorful designs, in the apse, the Chapel is the perfect space for Daniel, with the added benefit of its long central aisle allowing for properly dramatic processionals and recessionals. A proscenium-like frame from which a richly blue velvet curtain hung divided the playing area which was situated under a large hanging wooden crucifix. A throne, some chairs and table were the rest of the simple set.
The Play of Daniel is a re-telling of the familiar Bible story in which Daniel is called upon to interpret the “writing on the wall” for King Belshazzar who is doomed by God for the role his father Nebuchadnezzar played in the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Belshazzar is summarily dethroned by the conquering Persian King Darius. Belshazzar’s slimy Counselors, survivors of the coup, jealously conspire to get rid of Daniel who is thrown into the Lions’ Den, surviving due to divine intervention. The evil Counselors get their proper retribution and Daniel is saved so that he can announce—rather anachronistically—the birth of Christ.
Staged by Drew Minter with a masterful eye for both period detail and the perceptions of the modern audience, this spectacle is pleasing in virtually every aspect. The costuming by Sasha Richter is lavish. The characters appear to have stepped out of a medieval tapestry, many superb examples of which are just steps away from the Chapel. Daniel is wittily set in relief from the others by his Jewish prayer shawl and the yarmulke on his head. Stephen Dobay’s set design gave a lovely frame and plenty of room in which the action unfolded. Brian Barnett’s clever lighting made the most of the cavernous space.
The crowning glory of this Daniel, however, was the musical direction of Mary Anne Ballard whose small band, in period costumes, of course, provided the backbone to the drama with the incredibly complex music of this period. These period instrumentalists not only supported the mood and the action, but managed to make eerie sound effects that underlined everything from the coming of angels (whose costumes were the most inspired) to the sounds of nature. The richness and expressiveness of the sounds that these musicians made provoked every emotional reaction, from awe to laughter. The final chanting recessional, a cappella, except for the haunting sound of tuned bells, was as close to divine as a theatrical performance can get.
The cast was first rate, singing this difficult music, with its tangy harmonies and long melodic lines, as well as acting the larger than life characters. Mr. Minter chose to use very stylized gestures and poses, but still managed to give dramatic heft to the story because these performers, experienced period actors all, were full-bodied and oddly three-dimensional. Tenor James Ruff occupied Daniel with a quiet humanity, his gaze always far away as if divinely inspired. Peter Walker found humor in Belshazzar and the Prophet Habakkuk, who reluctantly gives sustenance to the exiled Daniel. Countertenor José Lemos communicated a youthful majesty. Soprano Sarah Pillow took on the double roles of the Queen who advised Belshazzar to consult Daniel and an Angel. Her voice was indeed angelic, especially at the end when she harmonized with the other Angel, soprano Elizabeth Baber, who wore her wings with grace. Jeffrey Johnson and Peter Stewart were the hilariously vicious lions.
The Play of Daniel provides an oasis away from the stress of twenty-first century life, a calm, involving hour of loveliness and grace.
The Play of Daniel (January 11th-13th, 18th-20th, 2013)
A Gotham Early Music Scene (GEMS) production
The Cloisters Museum and Gardens, Fort Tryon Park, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, (Inwood, northern Manhattan)
Tickets, 212-570-3949 or visit http://www.metmuseum.org