Boston Camerata brings the lion’s den to Daniel

Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Daniel in the musical “The Play of Daniel.”

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Boston Camerata, one of the country’s premiere early music ensembles, celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2014 with performances of “The Play of Daniel,” a musical play created in the early 13th century. It was a great success and now the group is performing the work widely. On Sunday, they brought “Daniel” to Hyde Park as part of the Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series, one of the offerings of University of Chicago Presents.

Mezzo-soprano Anne Azéma, the artistic director of the Boston Camerata, studied the original manuscript that is housed at the British Library in London. It was composed in Beauvais, France and Azéma says that it was for the young people of the church establishment. She notes that the work has “a dimension of lively playfulness that still captivates us.”

It is based on the biblical story of Daniel. A feast of King Belshazzar is interrupted when a large hand writes strange words on a wall. None of the king’s wise men understand the meaning, but his queen tells him of a Jewish prisoner who can interpret signs. The prisoner Daniel explains to the king that God has been displeased by Belshazzar (and his father before him) and that God will destroy his kingdom and another will then rule it. Persian King Darius overthrows Belshazzar. Darius is advised to listen to Daniel but some of courtiers conspire against him and convince Darius to declare himself a god. Darius vows to send anyone to the lion’s den who does not worship him. When Daniel is sentenced to this punishment, before the lions can attack him an angel appears and keeps the lions from reaching Daniel. Darius releases Daniel and Daniel prophesies the coming of the Messiah while an angel announces the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

There was lots of splendid singing in this production, led by tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Daniel. His performance was sensitive, alluring and convincing. He was particularly powerful at the very end, as Daniel offers his prophecy.

The men playing his adversaries were also commendable. Tenor Jason McStoots was a standout singer-actor and offered a well-drawn portrait of Belshazzar. Bass Joel Frederiksen had a fine turn as Darius. His forceful low voice was pleasingly penetrating and commanded attention. In this minimalist production, with nothing but his rock-star, shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and a pair of sunglasses, he conveyed the insolence of power with great panache.

Soprano Camila Parias used her gorgeous voice as both the queen and the angel. In the latter, placed high above the singers and audience in Rockefeller Chapel, she had an angelic, otherworldly sound which was captivating and sweet.

The dancer Indrany Datta-Barua added a fascinating dimension with her wonderful dancing, my only complaint being there ought to have been more of it.

Excellent musical accompaniment was provided by Shira Kammen (vielle and harp) and Karim Nagi (percussion). They were often right next to the singers, making themselves an intriguing and integral part of the story.

Azéma served as music and stage director of “The Play of Daniel,” as well as performing as the narrator. As a singer, she communicates easily and clearly. As a musical leader, she brings forth coherence and beauty. As a director, she creates a vivid tableau working with very little in the way of costumes or props.

“The Play of Daniel” was preceded by a prelude described in the program as “a liturgy from Beauvais, France ca. 1200.” The chants used were from the same manuscript source as “Daniel.” A brief postlude was labeled “Year’s End in Beauvais.” These presumably were used to bookend the play to provide a relevant, religious context. I found these sections far less satisfying than the play itself, although in speaking with several audience members after the performance, I found myself in a distinct minority.

The performance was given long and enthusiastic applause and folks left Rockefeller Chapel looking very satisfied indeed.