Boston Camerata brings modern theatrical flair to ancient “Play of Daniel”

Mon Jan 22, 2018 at 11:48 am

By John Y. Lawrence

Boston Camerata performed "The Play of Daniel" Sunday afternoon at Rockefeller Chapel. FIle photo: Joel Cohen
Boston Camerata performed “The Play of Daniel” Sunday afternoon at Rockefeller Chapel. File photo: Joel Cohen

Centuries before there were concerts as we currently know them—before operas and oratorios, symphonies and cantatas—there were liturgical dramas. These plays, usually retelling a Biblical legend with or through music, were performed during church services on special occasions.

On Sunday afternoon, the Boston Camerata made a special occasion of their own by staging one such drama: the 13th-century Play of Daniel from Beauvais. Their version of the play, arranged and directed by artistic director Anne Azéma, was performed at Rockefeller Chapel, as part of the University of Chicago Presents series.

Although the soloists were supplied by the Camerata, the choral forces were local: The University of Chicago Choral Scholars and The Trebles of the Choir of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston.

The main challenge of ars antiqua music for modern ears is not that it lacks melodic beauty, but rather that the beauty can seem too much of one kind. The majority of The Play of Daniel is monophonic–meaning that even when multiple singers sing together, they all have the same tune. No harmony parts, and no counterpoint.

Without such textural variety, each moment can sound too similar to the next.

The Camerata’s solution was to create variety by other means: through the composition and visual arrangement of the ensemble, and through exploring the chapel itself as a space.

They opened the concert by performing a liturgy of the sort that might have preceded a performance of the play in old times. They filed up the nave, censer swinging, candles in hand. Their service started in traditional fashion: choristers standing in rows, soloists emerging from them, and singing directly to the audience.

But as they moved into the second, chant-focused phase of the liturgy, bass soloist Joel Frederiksen ascended to the pulpit to deliver a solo that rang above the heads of the audience. A third phase involved the women singing in a circle while accompanied by the drone of a hurdy-gurdy.

Then, the play proper began. Anne Azéma herself functioned as an English-language narrator, framing the two acts. But the rest of the performance was sung in Latin.

The acting style was very broad throughout. Broadest of all was Belshazzar, whom Jason McStoots played as a supercilious buffoon. When dancer Indrany Datta-Barua performed a gyration-filled routine for him in the feast scene, McStoots’s lustful goggling at her was like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon.

What might have proven over-the-top in other repertoire was effective here. Although the program notes provided a detailed scene synopsis, they did not provide line-by-line translations for the text. And so the largeness of the Camerata’s gestures made the dramatic action lucid, even for those without Latin.

The singing was uniformly strong throughout. Joel Frederiksen’s warm bass gave nobility to Darius. Camila Parias shone in her dual roles as the sensuous Queen and the pure-toned Angel. And anchoring the whole play as its title character was Jordan Weatherston Pitt. Particularly impressive was Pitt’s dynamic scope: powerful in Daniel’s prophetic moments, hushed when trembling in the lions’ den.  

An additional layer of color was provided by the instrumentalists: Shira Kammen on the vielle (the violin of that era) and Karim Nagi on a diverse assortment of percussion instruments.

The staging squeezed every ounce of theatrical potential from the chapel: from Darius’s soldiers marching up the nave, twirling and banging their staves; to the angel in the choir loft, foretelling the future Messiah. For repertoire often considered to be lacking in dramatic flair, the Boston Camerata crafted a lively experience.

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