It was hard not to feel empathy with the performers at last night's joint concert by the Folger Consort and the Court Dance Company of New York in Baird Auditorium. When you're trying to reconstruct multimedia entertainments conceived 700 and 400 years ago, you're necessarily into a lot of guesswork, despite the volumes of scholarship expended on such subjects. These artists went at their ambitious undertakings--the 13th-century "Play of Daniel" and a 1589 "Intermedio"--with such evident good will and desire to please that the spirit of the evening ultimately counted more than details.
To be sure, there were plenty of incidental delights. When the musicians and dancers were dealing strictly with their own areas of expertise, i.e., music and dance, the results were most often splendid. It was when these disciplines shaded off into the large "gray areas" of theatrical effect, stage deportment and spectacle, that things took on a decidedly dilletantish and slapdash aspect.
Baird has its charms as an intimate hall, but its deficiencies for theatrics put the enterprise at a grave disadvantage from the outset. The original ambiance for the "Daniel" play was probably churchly--one remembers the awesome and entrancing effect of a very different production by the New York Pro Musica seen on several occasions at Washington Cathedral in past years. As for the "Intermedio"--the word translates as "intermission," and it was one of a number of complex diversions presented between the acts of a play (Bargagli's "La Pellegrina") performed for the sumptuous wedding of a Medici lord. Not the wildest stretch of imagination will convert Baird's bare, vest-pocket stage into either Gothic vaults or the kind of theatrical splendor the designers of Renaissance palazzos and piazzas would have dreamed up.
"The Play of Daniel" was composed by student monks at Beauvais; the music is purely melodic (except for drone effects) like plainchant, and the story is the Biblical tale of the prophet and the lion's den, updated by its authors as a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. The Folger production sagely used an instrumental ensemble to back the singers, underlined the contrast between choral and solo delivery, and had the performers all in costume. But in attempting to bring this antique to modern life, it couldn't seem to decide between being a Hollywood melodrama (as in David Gordon's Gloria Swanson-ish King Balshazzar), Ritz Brothers slapstick (as in the caricatured Magi), grand opera (as in Patrick Mason's King Darius), choir practice (as in Peter Becker's Daniel) or Chinese farce (as in the two-man mock Lion). And somewhere in the shuffle, the mystery and wonder of the piece got lost.
The "Intermedio" was generally more successful, mainly because it stuck to music and dance. The musical performance was spry and expressive, though the choral sound, with the singers well back on stage, was too often smothered by the instruments. The dancers, in interpolated choreography by Renaissance dancing masters, made the period credible not only in the nimbleness of their steps, curtsys, jumps and beats, but in the relaxed, graceful, uplifted carriage of their upper bodies. The dance pieces, however, seemed more rustic than courtly, and hence out of kilter with the surrounding music. All in all, an evening of mixed rewards.