Composer: Julia Holter
Conductor: Hugh Brunt
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s acclaimed 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, now exists only in a shortened form (88 minutes) reclaimed from a Danish version. Working from that, American composer Julia Holter was commissioned pre-Covid by Opera North to compose a soundtrack, using the Opera North Chorus. Understandably somewhat delayed, this is the version the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival staged at Huddersfield Town Hall.
For a start, Dreyer’s film holds up wonderfully well. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance as Joan is compelling. Filmed almost entirely in close-up, she conveys agony, incomprehension, indecision and, ultimately, supreme confidence in her faith in agonising detail.
Dreyer concentrates his attention on the trial and execution of Joan, using transcripts of the trial. It’s interesting to note how many of Joan’s pert replies – less pert here, more bewildered – parallel exactly Shaw’s St. Joan of a similar time. Much is taken up with reaction shots: gloriously smug faces, evilly malicious ones, compassionate ones unable to understand Joan, crazily comical ones. Only late on, around the execution, do we find brief vignettes of jugglers, tumblers, and the rest before the film ends with the transfiguration of Joan and riots in the streets.
This is what Julia Holter sets for herself (vocals and keyboard), her own small band (trumpet, percussion and an odd double of bagpipes and synthesiser) and the 36-strong Opera North Chorus, the whole thing conducted by Hugh Brunt. In front of the screen the band took one side, the chorus the other, the conductor in between.
Holter generally doesn’t attempt a frame-by-frame match-up. The Chorus sings – excellently – melodies reminiscent of plainsong: the programme’s reference to Holter’s “longstanding fascination with the art, history and music of the Middle Ages” is more than justified. At times it builds to dramatic climaxes, but generally more modern sounds break in and disturb the calm of the “medieval” chant: trumpet, drums, most oddly the discordant sound of the bagpipes in the later stages, destroying the peace of Joan ascending to Heaven – but that fits perfectly with Dreyer’s concept, acrobats and cripples and then, finally, rioters breaking in on her immolation.
Ultimately this proved an engrossing hour and a half. How much was due to the tortured face of Falconetti in dramatic close-up and how much to Holter’s music is difficult to say, but surely that’s the point of a film score, to intensify an already existing experience.
Reviewed on 23rd November 2022.