Eight hundred years ago, the “youth of Beauvais” in the north of France created a sacred festival “play,” Ludus Danieli (ludus—meaning a sacred event? a performance? a game? a joke?) for the annual Fool’s Night on January 1 at the cathedral. Resurrected and arranged by Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica in 1958, The Play of Daniel has been called the world’s oldest surviving opera, depending on how you define that. Its tunefulness, simple story and naïve charm have made it a popular visitor.  

Daniel combines the most famous episodes in the life of the Old Testament prophet: Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on the Wall and the Lion’s Den. These are construed to imply the coming of one even holier than the prophet Daniel—the one whose nativity had so lately been commemorated at this season. All these strands of faith and tradition were braided into an annual entertainment of whose actual presentation we know very little: Only the text (in Latin and Old French) and the melodies survive; not even the rhythms, the distribution of voices, the participation of instruments can be divined for certain. Happily, the surviving blueprint has proved, in Greenberg’s redaction, widely appealing.

By medieval times, church architecture had abandoned the boxy Roman basilica for something longer and more focused, with a nave, crossing and high altar to facilitate the processions and exaltations of Christian ritual. The current run of performances by GEMS (Gotham Early Music Scene) takes place as part of their multifarious Twelfth Night Festival, running through Epiphany in the gothic nave of Trinity Church. Drew Minter’s staging makes use of processions down the nave to introduce characters (usually singing) into the action, otherwise performed on a stage before the altar. His company also performs medieval dances to enhance a stately liturgical atmosphere and surround us with the music as if we were a congregation.

Daniel has been scored for psaltery, rebec, shawm, recorders, drums—you get the idea—and the instrumentalists are costumed and take part in the processions and dances.  A note in the program indicates taht we do not know if secular instruments were permitted in church. But on the Portal of Majesty of the gothic Collegiate Church in Toro, Spain, the layer of carving encircling the row of angels acclaiming their God consists of musical instruments, including psaltery, rebec, shawm, harp, trumpets. Their presence implies they are not out of place on heavenly occasions, and one may guess they were heard in the church as well.

There are no distracting surtitles at Trinity Church. The simple story is summarized in the program: Belshazzar, King of Babylon, is feasting with his princes from utensils stolen by his grandfather Nebuchadnezzar at the sack of the Temple in Jerusalem. Suddenly a mysterious hand appears and writes on the wall. No one can read the words, and the Queen advises the King to seek out Daniel, a Jewish captive. Daniel translates the graffiti all right (“You are weighed and found wanting, etc.”). The king is slain and Darius the Mede (preceded by the Persian army) ascends the throne.

Darius is tricked by wicked counselors into committing Daniel to a den of fierce lions, but an angel protects him (whereupon the lions become pussycats) and another angel drags in the prophet Habakkuk to offer Daniel refreshments. King Darius tosses his evil counselors to the lions. Daniel prophesies and everyone ambles home. The action is swift-moving and there is nothing very intricate to follow, but I miss the summarizing English couplets W.H. Auden wrote for Daniel, that were spoken between sections of the story in the old Pro Musica days.

Sasha Richter’s costumes, originally created for the fiftieth anniversary revival at the Cloisters in 2008, were inspired by the “medieval” orientalisms seen in that museum; they are both colorful and winsome, especially the raggedy lions and top-heavy angels, while Stephen Dobay’s spare sets recall the interiors in illuminated manuscripts. Daniel wears a modern prayer shawl and kipa—but Daniel should stand apart, for his exceptional, prophetic position, and Mr. Minter underscores this by showing him athletically in prayer in the nave while Darius’s wicked counselors are poisoning the king’s mind against him.

Daniel is not a piece for the operatic vocal style of more theatrical centuries. The airs are subtle statements, the message subsumes extremity. Tenor James Ruff made a dignified Daniel, accepting his destiny with becoming modesty but stalwart in his expressions of faith. Bass-baritone Peter Walker was ineffective as Belshazzar, who gets very few lines, but had more fun with the reluctant Habakkuk. Sarah Pillow sang the Queen with sedate grace, and Melissa Fogarty made a radiant Angel. José Lemos, as Darius, having ascended the throne with a throaty tenor, abruptly transformed his more regal and prophetic utterances to a mellow countertenor that filled and warmed the church. Smaller roles were contributed elegantly.