The lion is probably what the audience will remember longest from Saturday night's experience in the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre. Strictly speaking, it was a lion puppet, and not a complete one -- only two paws and a head. But it looked fully capable of gobbling the prophet Daniel, who cringed in a corner singing "What have I done to deserve this?" in medieval Latin.
This dramatic moment, with the appearance of a red-robed, sword-bearing angel who made the lion act like a pussycat, was the climax of "Daniel and the Lions," an 800-year-old show biz spectacular in a high-impact performance by the Ensemble for Early Music. It gave a brilliant start to this year's old music series for University Community Concerts.
Perhaps the show lacked suspense. Everyone knows before it begins that Daniel will escape unharmed from the lion's den -- and the plot is summarized, anyway, in the opening chorus. But there is a special delight in watching it happen, in returning to the simple world of pre-Shakespearean theater and the pristine melodies and pungent instrumental flavors of 12th-century music.
"Danielis Ludus," which was called "The Play of Daniel" when first introduced to large audiences by the New York Pro Musica a generation ago, is not really an opera, though it sometimes looks and sounds like one. It is the most elaborately developed of the medieval liturgical dramas that have been preserved, complete with music and stage directions, from the 12th and 13th centuries. Originally written for performance in the Christmas season at the Cathedral of Beauvais, it was a culminating point in a bold, experimental effort to bring a religious message to the people by theatrical means. It is the dramatic and musical equivalent of the great stained-glass windows of the period.
Its surface simplicity and show biz style are somewhat deceptive. It embodies a wealth of religious symbols (Daniel as a predecessor of Jesus Christ, for example) that would have been recognized and appreciated by most of its original audience, and at the end it leads back into a traditional form of prayer with the singing of the ancient hymn "Te Deum." But the colorful form in which the old story is presented can still appeal to audiences eight centuries later.
The Ensemble for Early Music plays it somewhat differently from the New York Pro Musica version. An instrumental suite of medieval dances, rather than a fanfare, is used as an overture, some of the rhythms are quite different and so is the orchestration. But it is recognizably the same classic, as fresh and vigorous as ever. It is superbly performed by the whole ensemble, with particularly fine work by Jeffrey Thomas in the title role and countertenor Christopher Trueblood as Belshazzar's queen and the rescuing angel.