Choral Arts adds `Voices of Light' to silent `Joan of Arc'

Oratorio accompanies film Sunday at Meyerhoff

Stage: theater, music, dance

May 20, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Talk about twists of fate.

A stunning silent film portraying Joan of Arc's horrific trial and burning at the stake is released in 1928. Not long afterward, the original negative is lost in a warehouse fire, along with what are presumed to be the only copies. The director reconstructs the film using outtakes that survived. That painstakingly resurrected version also burns up in a warehouse fire.

In 1981, an almost pristine print of the original is found - in the janitor's closet of a mental hospital in Norway. Joan rises again, triumphant.

But wait. There's more. A composer unexpectedly comes across a copy of the revived film in a library in 1988 and is moved to write an oratorio about the French heroine and saint. Incorporating words of Joan, medieval mystics and other sources, the work is premiered in 1994 and becomes a hit recording the next year. Although it can stand alone on its own terms, the oratorio also can be used to accompany the film.

The trail of flames that followed Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is strange enough. That the well-preserved copy should be found in a place for the mentally disturbed - Joan's accusers thought she was insane (or possessed) - just adds one more creepy layer to the story. At least the end of that story is upbeat.

Dreyer's masterpiece of cinematic narrative and psychological insight has been returned to glory, and the oratorio it inspired, Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, has given the film a new, affecting dimension.

This audiovisual experience is available on the Criterion Collection's DVD release of the movie, but a live performance of the oratorio with a screening of the Dreyer classic can be even more compelling.

On Sunday, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society will bring this high-sensory event to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, joined by Anonymous 4, the stellar vocal quartet featured on the premiere Sony Classical recording of Einhorn's oratorio.

If you've never seen Dreyer's film, you are in for a riveting experience. There are good reasons why it is on many a greatest-films-of-all-time list.

It was only in 1920 that Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic Church, renewing interest in the illiterate French village girl who started hearing voices when she was 13. By 17, dressed as a boy, she had led an army against the English occupiers, enabling Charles VII to be crowned king of France. At 18, she was captured, incarcerated, subjected to relentless interrogation and accusations of heresy.

Worn down by the imprisonment and threats of torture, she finally signed a statement denying that the voices she had been hearing for so long were from God. She received a life sentence from the clerical court. Within three days, however, Joan declared that she had signed in error. Reaffirming her belief that she was acting on divine authority, and with the promise of divine mercy, she submitted to the court's new verdict - death at the stake.

Dreyer was not interested in making a conventional costume drama about Joan's interrogation and death (he conflated months of events into a single day, intensifying the drama). All he wanted was the naked reality; he wouldn't even allow his actors to use makeup. "What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past," the director said.

He did this by means of camera angles that put us directly into Joan's plight, looking up, as she did, at her almost uniformly unsympathetic judges. Much of the film is in tight close-up, so tight that we seem to see every pore on Joan's skin and to see through her wide, frightened eyes to her very soul. Her quivering nostrils, the tears that slowly slide down her cheeks, wiped away by her hands, with their dirty fingernails - each shot is alive with truth.

The cruelty and hypocrisy of the accusers is driven home in shot after intensely realistic shot, nowhere more potently than when one pompous, overfed cleric tells Joan that "The Church is merciful," then moves his hand back as she stretches hers pathetically toward him for comfort.

Lines taken from transcripts of the ordeal are shown as titles, in silent-movie fashion, but you almost don't need any words. The faces of everyone on camera speak plainly enough.

Einhorn's choice of texts for his oratorio complements the film's narrative brilliantly, especially during the scene when Joan is taken into a torture chamber and shown what could be in store for her. Here, choristers sing of "glorious wounds" and soloists rhapsodize on "the little bit of Christ's flesh that the nails fixed to the wood." It's a chilling juxtaposition.

Touches of minimalism and medieval chant run through the score, which does not attempt a frame-by-frame synchronization with the film, like a traditional silent movie soundtrack. The music is, rather, a commentary on the action, a reflection on the human, moral and religious issues raised by Joan's fate.

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