New ‘Passion’ for LA Master Chorale opener

passion-of-joan-of-arcIf you remember nothing else about Joan of Arc, you probably remember that she was burned to death, only to live on in memory.  A military champion for France, she was reviled by the British.  What you may not know are the eerie parallels, five centuries later, in the fate of the 1928 silent film about her trial and death.

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is the French film created by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer, and has its own tumultuous history.  This was one of Dreyer’s most ambitious projects, and as his tyrannical perfectionism raised the ire of cast and crew, the film took eighteen months to complete, which was nearly unheard of at the time.  The film was banned in the UK for its anti-English sentiment (they were the enemy in 1431, after all). Then original negative and then a salvaged copy were both tragically burned in two separate fires, and the film was all but lost until years after its creator’s death, when an unknown print surfaced in 1981, found in a closet at a Norwegian mental institution.  Once the film re-emerged, it changed cinema, influencing countless filmmakers and particularly inspiring Lars von Trier and the other founders of the Danish avant-garde “Dogme 95” movement, which spanned a decade in the late ’90s and early 21st century.  But whatever its context, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is deeply moving and astonishing in its storytelling, making it timeless and a truly monumental work.

Voices of Light, the complementary work for orchestra and chorus, was written by composer Richard Einhorn in 1994.  He came across the film six years earlier, at a screening in New York that left him “shattered, having unexpectedly seen one of the most extraordinary works of art that I know.”  Voices has since been performed more than 250 times, in various manifestations — conceived as a multipurpose work, it can be performed on its own, worked into another staging, or as we experienced it on Sunday evening at Disney Hall, synchronized with the film.

From the start, we’re informed that this is the story of a legend: “not in armor, but simple and human… the real Joan”.  The 19-year-old saint claimed to be bound to her mission since birth, and showed great courage at a very young age, fighting for her country and leading troops into battle without flinching.  But it is her claim to be acting on the direct instruction of God that gets her in trouble, raising the ire and jealousies of powerful local clerics.

LA Master Chorale and orchestra, 'Voices of Light'.  Photo by Jamie Pham.
LA Master Chorale and orchestra, ‘Voices of Light’. Photo by Jamie Pham.

The oratorio commences just before the film, with the three female soloists in haunting unison chant.  Sopranos Claire Fedoruk and Hayden Eberhart and mezzo Adriana Manfredi are very well matched, their voices flowing seamlessly together, with great precision and musicality.  Once the orchestra starts with a grand Verdian choral opening, we already have a thrilling sense of the film’s broad emotional range, and we’re off.

Once the film begins, the visuals are riveting.  Built almost entirely of extreme close-ups and without makeup, the film’s emotional intimacy is tangible and intense.  The image resolution is astounding for the era, and even the “errors” meld into the whole: for instance, there are several shots where the glaring lights are plainly visible reflected in Joan’s large, dark eyes.  But they come across as the fire lit within her — it works.  Stunningly realistic acting and intuitive directing mark the work as decades before its time.  Maria Falconetti, as Joan, is almost always shown from the neck up, leaving her to convey her character with little more than her face and an occasional hand.  Her intention is constant and fascinating throughout.  At several points, a fly lands on her face, and she sweeps it away without missing a beat.  The direction includes many details, large and small, that make the action surprisingly real in their simple humanity: a priest pulling at his hair as he waits for the prisoner’s entrance, another scratching at an ear and inspecting the results.  Later, court minions poke at Joan’s ears and pull her hair, laughing in gleeful impishness and twisting her arm grotesquely before stealing a ring from her hand.  As the sacrificial stake is prepared, we see worms wriggling through an abandoned skull in the dirt.  A baby stops suckling for a moment to look at Joan in judgment.  Contortionists and freaks entertain the crowd.

Soloists Daniel Chaney (tenor) and Abdiel Gonzalez (baritone) are a good match as well, and both shine with rich tones and expressive performances.  The solo sections range from pleading to accusatory to tender, particularly at the end: but throughout, they are another layer in the fabric, not standing out so much as illuminating the story from within the choir.  With such strong images as the primary focus, the music does tend to fade (if appropriately) into the background. But their symbiosis is captivating.  Conductor Grant Gershon led the always-excellent chorale and orchestra with his typical fluid precision, keeping pace with the film but never appearing hampered by it.

The libretto is not what I expected, but so much better.  The film’s text, onscreen and in sparse title slides, is based on the extensive and detailed documentation of Joan’s trial, which actually spanned more than six months.  (The film compresses the action to a single day.)  Rather than closely following the action and dialogue, the choral text draws from scripture and from numerous medieval literary sources, including texts from the earliest feminist texts and a noted misogynist poem from the 13th century, resulting in an amalgam which provides its own evocative backdrop.  With lights dimmed, it was too dark to follow the printed libretto during the concert, anyway. But the texts are fascinating in later study.

Composer Richard Einhorn.  Photo by Amy Singer.
Composer Richard Einhorn

While Einhorn’s film score roots are clearly apparent (no surprise, of course), it’s clear that the work would be equally effective in concert, sans cinéma.  Its lyrical melodies, powerful drive and varied style tell of Joan’s real and symbolic journey with subtlety and depth that is lyrical, powerful, moving. We are swept away into her experience, left to wonder, at what point does piety become madness?  Under the stress and pressure of this type of intensive interrogation, there is no doubt that many would succumb, and confess to just about anything.  Driven by arrogance, suspicion and distrust of each other as well as of their prisoner, the judges’ fear and ambitions are relentless. The music reflects Joan’s mindset, rather than being strictly bound to the general action onscreen.  This shifts only at the end, as her body burns and the crowd erupts in grief and outrage.  As the orchestra and chorus complete their final cries in a flourish, the onscreen mob is driven out of the castle, left with pleas and prayers on the other side of a quickly raised drawbridge.  The end result is devastating, and was met by a well-deserved, enthusiastic and almost universal standing ovation.  Bravo indeed.


Additional reading

Program notes by Thomas May

Artist bios

Disclosure: The author is a former member of the LA Master Chorale.

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