The Middle Ages was a time of intense piety in Europe, but not all theatre and music sponsored by the Church, by far the most active impresario of the period, was produced for exclusively reverent reasons. Witness Danielis ludus (The Play of Daniel). A product of the cathedral community of Beauvais in northwestern France, the vibrant Old Testament story set to music is credited, in the single surviving manuscript copy of the work, to the juventus (young people) of the attendant ecclesiastical school. Performed as part of Christmas-week festivities in the great nave of Beauvais’ ancient church, this animated, at times rowdy early music drama became associated with a raucous seasonal event known locally as the Feast of Fools. All classes in the Church hierarchy, priests, deacons, mass servers, had their day in the Medieval calendar. But it was the lowliest members of the clerical order, the subdeacons, teenagers training for the priesthood, that were at the centre of sanctioned celebrations on New Year’s Day. By all accounts, the students frequently ran amok, drinking and gambling on the altar, even reputedly riding donkeys up and down the aisles. Rather than ban their highjinks, Church authorities elected to harness the annual eruption of youthful high spirits by allowing the subdeacons to perform as players in a boisterous annual pageant rich in Christian messaging. The Play of Daniel captured everyone’s fancy, misbehaved adolescents and townsfolk alike.
With a delightful, lavishly staged re-enactment of the 800-year old liturgical drama, the Toronto Consort, under the musical leadership of Artistic Director David Fallis, lit up opening night. Partnered by an unfailingly resonant four-player ensemble performing on period instruments, the dynamic cast of principals and comprimari, supported by the fresh, radiant voices of the VIVA! Youth Singers, filled Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre to overflowing with an outpouring of harmony and plainsong, drama, laughter and spirituality.
Part miracle play, part proto-opera, The Play of Daniel both praises and condemns, simultaneously scourging the blasphemous while uplifting the virtuous, painting a vivid picture of the power of faith and devotion. The narrative unfolds in distinct panels of action much like a familiar Bible tale depicted in stained glass.
Following a recitation by choristers of what is to come, startlingly revealing to modern ears but simply regarded as prelude by Medieval audiences, the debauched Babylonian tyrant Belshazzar ascends to his throne. Ordering the golden vessels looted from Jerusalem to be brought before him, he and his profane nobles employ the sacred cups and bowls to drink the health of next to everyone in the realm. Suddenly, a mysterious line of glowing script materializes on a nearby palace wall. Neither the king or his wise men understand it. Belshazzar’s queen enters, announcing only the Judean slave Daniel possesses the knowledge to decipher the arcane message. Daniel is duly summoned and, reading God’s words forecasting the king’s impending doom, is amply rewarded for his insight despite a regal note of apprehension. No sooner has Belshazzar departed from the scene than all-conquering Darius, King of the Medes, swoops down with his army, slaying the Babylonian potentate, proclaiming himself new ruler of the land. Suspicious of Daniel’s presence in the palace and jealous of his continuing favoured status, the mighty Persian’s sly counsellors trick him into commanding that all must worship the king as a living deity. Daniel refuses to renounce his God and is cast into a den of hungry lions for his disobedience. Alone before the snarling beasts, Daniel prays to God for deliverance. An angel appears to shield him from harm whereupon Darius, much astonished by the miracle, orders Daniel released and the hateful counsellors cast into the lion pit, a fitting sentence for their treachery. The king proclaims Daniel’s God supreme in the land. Angels prophesize the coming of Christ. All join in worshipping the Lord.
The moral here is abundantly clear. Daniel, undoubtedly appealing to a 13th century band of junior clerics by virtue of his youth, is wiser than any Babylonian, no matter how highborn or powerful. His simple, unquestioning service to God confers a far loftier nobility. The future, as witnessed by the play’s promise of a Christ to come, is full of promise. The good and the virtuous will be rewarded in life now and in the hereafter.
Characters, already well-defined by the play’s anonymous author(s), felt even more strongly individualized in The Toronto Consort’s decidedly physical production. The Queen, a paragon of dignity and inner strength, processing in and out of the church. Belshazzar, a muddled hedonist, shifting uncomfortably on his throne. Daniel, brave and saintly, reaching heavenwards for guidance. Stage director Alex Fallis achieved strong dramatic effects, extracting bold displays of emotion from his community of committed players, variable in their strengths as actors, all engagingly human, as would have been the norm when The Play of Daniel was first performed. Designer Glenn Davidson’s Moorish arches, exotic today, undoubtedly flabbergasting to Medieval travellers to Cordoba, hinted at the allure of distant lands. Projected patterns and imagery evoked depths of mood and meaning, stage lighting adding warmth punctuated by scenes of chiaroscuro. Spotlit angels looked down from the balcony. Song poured from all around. The haunting drone of the hurdy-gurdy. Bells rang in the darkness.
Musical structures in The Play of Daniel are deceptively straightforward at first glance. Manuscript notation consists of a single sparse line of melody and text expressed as dozens of separate refrains, a good many plausibly inspired by secular forms. Troubadour ballads, dances, rambunctious drinking songs, echoes of the Carmina Burana, the score, for lack of a better word, is a virtual anthology of Medieval vocal expression. What is less obvious, however, as arranger David Fallis pointed out in an extended interview with Opera Going Toronto, is any hint as to exactly how these numerous, assorted monophonic selections might have been played. Time signatures and clues to rhythm are fundamentally non-existent. As is the case with so much early music, any musician or singer approaching The Play of Daniel is required to engage in a good deal of creative guesswork. The key to informed interpretation, Fallis continued, lies not only in the nature of the various specified themes and airs but also in the metre of the original poetic text. Translating Latin lyrics into modern rhymed English brought rhythms and tempi into sharper focus.
The work that Fallis has done here is nothing short of remarkable. Interweaving snatches of archaic French into a stream of smartly proportioned, colloquial English, framing The Play of Daniel’s more sombre, sacred moments in original Latin, all made to seem utterly spontaneous, infused this production with a unique blend of elegance and earthiness, accessibility and credible authenticity.
Appearing in the play’s ubiquitous central role, tenor Kevin Skelton portrayed a profoundly inspiring Daniel, his bright, sunny instrument refracting a spectrum of prismatic colours, courage to desperation, fear to faith to triumph. Bathed in a lonely spotlight, Daniel reaches out to his God in a gesture of near arioso proportions, Bonum est confidere in Dominum Domino (“It is good to trust in the Lord of Lords”). Skelton mesmerized.
As a strapping, intemperate Belshazzar, baritone Olivier Laquerre drank and sang with delicious, full-bodied lustiness. Soprano Michele DeBoer was The Queen, open-voiced and pure-hearted. Tenor Derek Kwan sang a commanding King Darius. Bud Roach, Paul Jenkins and David Fallis, the latter revealing a seldom-seen side as a more than credible singer/actor, assumed multiple personas as nobles and counsellors in both Babylonian and Persian courts. John Pepper was Habakkuk, Daniel’s somewhat addled befriender.
Voicing an innumerable succession of thrillingly harmonious processionals, the 22 young choristers of VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto brought splendid energy and crispness to each and every heavenly conductus of the evening, lofting this Play of Daniel skywards.
An irreverent guide to good behaviour, a prayer for humankind, The Play of Daniel speaks across the ages. With its sparkling presentation, The Toronto Consort gave this glorious masterpiece of the Middle Ages fresh, enchanted voice.