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Thirteenth Century Grandeur in the Bronx

New York
Fuentiduena Chapel at The Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, Bronx, New York
01/11/2013 -  & January 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 2013
The Play of Daniel: A Medieval Music Drama from Beauvais

James Ruff (Daniel), Peter Walker (King Belshazzar, Habakkuk), José Lemos (King Darius), Sarah Pillow (Queen/Habakkuk’s Angel), Scott Mello, Christopher Preston Thompson, Sara Wadin (Princes/Envious Counselors), Amy Bartram, Melissa Fogarty, Sarah Gallogly , Amaranta Viera (Satraps), Jeffrey Johnson, Peter Stewart (Magi/Soldiers/Lions), Elizabeth Baber (Satrap/Angel)
Rachel Begley, Christa Patton, Mark Rimple, Amy Bartram, Marcia Young, Dongnyung Ahn, Mary Anne Ballard, Rex Benincasa (Instrumentalists), Mary Anne Ballard (Music Director)
Stephen Dobay (Set Design), Sasha Richter (Costume Design), Bran Barnett (Lighting Design), Joe Gladstone (Stage Manager), Gotham Early Music Scene, (Producers), Drew Minter (Stage Director)

The cast (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

During the first authentic ancient music craze in the 1950’s, dedicated musicians tested squeaky violins, squawky valveless trumpets and harpsichords which (I believe Sir Thomas Beacham said) were “like cats fornicating on a tin roof.”

Noah Greenberg, conductor and founder of the Pro Musica Antiqua, though, did the impossible. When he discovered 13th Century manuscript of a Mystery Play which was “improvised” by students from a French village, he realized that The Play Of Daniel needed no rationales, no excuses for “authenticity.” In fact, as Mr. Greenberg, might have to add the instrumentation, might have to give harmony to a few of the melodies–but he had a wealth of material to work with.

Here was a drama (or a pair of dramas) with Jewish, Babylonian and Christian tales to tell, a staged work (originally for children) with magicians, lions, prophetic sayings, dances and songs. And while it was performed in churches, this was no holier-than-thou High Mass. It was a series of stories and characters which breathed the reality of fable and politics, religion and torture.

The results were astonishing, and Mr. Greenberg’s arrangements have been performed innumerable times. The need for ancient instruments perhaps precludes Play of Daniel from having the popularity of, say, Amahl, but for those ensembles up to the task, it is thrilling music.

It was one of the first recordings I remember cherishing. But (mea culpa), I never actually saw this play live until yesterday afternoon. And frankly, I was so stunned with the production, commemorating the 75th anniversary year of the Cloisters in the rebuilt Spanish Fuentiduena Chapel with its 12th Century huge painted Crucifix, with its apse (so important here) and lovely Romanesque carvings–including one of Daniel in the Lion’s Den–that no setting could be better.

This is a music of pageantry, with musicians and singers coming up the grand nave, playing recorders, rebecs, drumming and harping, dressed in the most gorgeous brocades of the era. One could be going back to the paintings of Van Eyck or Giotto, standing at a window in Medieval Bruges. The only exception was the figure of Daniel himself, with the kippah on his head, the talith (or prayer ahswl), the spotless white robes of the rabbi. (Wrong profession but permissible: He was a prophet, not a rabbi.)

Daniel is the hero of both stories. One of the captured Hebrews, he is the only to decipher the magical words at King Belshazzar’s feast when the Persian magi are befuddles. (Those few minutes of befuddlement produced an amiable if severely anachronistic Three Stooges moment.) And Daniel, in the second part (Belshazzar having been overthrown in this fast-moving drama) refuses to accept King Darius as god, so is thrown into the lion’s den.

Not giving anything away, Daniel tames the lions, makes Darius worship the Jewish god until an angel comes to announce the coming of Christ, so they all get turned into Christians.

Whew! Now that’s eclectic theater!

Stage Director Drew Minter could have his work cut out for him. What other opera before Wozzeck would have so many exciting scenes? A march! A feast on stolen Jewish cutlery! Writing from God on the chapel wall! Magicians and prophets, lions and dances? A captive Jew? Sycophantic Babylonians?.

J. Lemos (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

What Stage Director Drew Minter did so brilliantly here was to offer a fast-moving drama with real characters dwelling on real challenges. We had James Ruff as the pious Daniel, his gestures, whether interpreting cryptic signs or praying feverishly to his god in a good tenor voice, gave a lyrical boost to a pharisaic character. The two kings were equally differentiated. Peter Walker was the baritone Belshazzar (and later a bass as the bewildered Habakkuk), a tempestuous unhappy tyrant. King Darius starts out as a tenor, but as emotions rise, he goes into a surprising countertenor range. (One wonders what the original singer could have been: Man? Woman? Girl? Boy?)

But one cannot dwell on these three, for this was an ensemble production, resonant with those stunning period costumes, performed by musicians who could dance as well as strum and pluck, and a real chapel, the stones of which were originally used to construct a Spanish edifice during the century when The Play of Daniel was being performed.

I cannot think of any “actualized” work of these times which doesn’t have its scholarly carpers. But The Play of Daniel is the exception. Perhaps because it was not created by churchmen or professional musicians, perhaps because, like Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, it was originally set for children to perform, or perhaps because Mr. Greenberg saw the magic of the original 50-odd melodies.

Whatever the reason, this hour-long presentation floats along on its volition of glorious music, wondrous dress, the color and spirit of theater and a production which, even within the stolid Romanesque stones of the chapel soars seamlessly to the dome.


Ten more productions will be shown here, at 1 and 3 p.m, on Saturday and Sunday, January 12 and 13, and following Friday, Saturday and Sunday, also at 1 and 3 p.m. Those who believe the Cloisters is “far away” are dreaming. Like Duke Ellington, you take the A train to 190th Street, alight and Fort Tryon park with its fine view of the Hudson River is right in front. A ten-minute to the north, and you’ll find yourself back eight centuries.

Harry Rolnick



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