J. Ernest Green's masterful conducting of the Annapolis Chorale, Chamber Orchestra and soloists in two performances of Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light," an oratorio set to Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc," brought a unique experience to near-capacity audiences last weekend at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
Having heard Einhorn's 1994 work in Green's January 1999 regional premiere, and again this March when Marin Alsop conducted it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Choral Arts Society at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, I was aware of its relevance and profound emotional impact.
The fusion of medieval and minimalist music in "Voices of Light" fits the film, which speaks eloquently to audiences today. The accusers' misogynistic ridiculing of Joan as lacking femininity because she chooses to wear pants instead of maidenly attire is similar to certain politicians' recent sexist rants on women's health issues. Clerics questioning the validity of Joan's faith recall contemporary authorities inflicting their politico-religious beliefs on subscribers of differing faiths.
Surprisingly, because of the quality of the performance and its venue, "Voices of Light" was most powerful on my third hearing. Dreyer's film, projected on a large screen in Maryland Hall's more intimate space, had greater impact than it did at the Meyerhoff. The translated text projected with the film enhanced our understanding of the words sung by the chorus to tell Joan's story. Most importantly, the full Annapolis Chorale — 175 voices totally engaged and passionately interpreting every phrase of Einhorn's magnificent oratorio — produced an incomparable sound.
Customarily, Einhorn's oratorio is performed while Dreyer's film is projected. Dreyer's original version of the film was destroyed by fire, but over five decades later, in 1981, an intact copy was discovered in Oslo, Norway. A restored print was made from this copy, and after viewing it, Einhorn was inspired to compose his score.
The film is praised for its extraordinary use of close-ups of the cast, most notably of actress Renee Maria Falconetti as Joan, silently communicating her fear, her abiding religious faith and her elation in it. Her accusers — officious priests and taunting guards — are also seen in vivid close-ups, their faces distorted in menacing expressions.
Einhorn's remarkable libretto of Latin and medieval French texts sensitively combines the poetry of medieval mystics with biblical passages. It includes quotations from clerics at Joan's trial and, most poignantly, Joan's own words from her correspondence — the words of an illiterate, devout Christian teenager who led a French army to defeat the English at Orleans.
Einhorn's score shifts styles and harmonies, always heightening the impact of the film. From the first notes before the film begins, the chorus sings a haunting melody a Capella, moving us back in time, with the music swelling dramatically as the credits appear on screen. The music flows with the drama depicted in the film, often in layers of wondrous sound, until the final frame.
With Green's guidance, the chorus and orchestra met all the artistic and emotional demands of Einhorn's music. Summoning exquisite instrumental coloring, the musicians matched the rhythms of the film and its dramatic intensity while the chorus communicated varying expressions to bring meaning and feeling to the libretto's antique languages.
Standing out in an evening of musical peaks were the relentless sound of violins played sul ponticello (near the bridge) to capture Joan's terror at the awaiting nail-spiked wheel, and the "Pater Noster" ("Lord's Prayer") with its mournful cello and female chorus representing a prayerful Joan in touch with God. Particularly moving was "The Final Walk," with its Domremy church bell sounding as Joan exits prison to begin her walk to the scaffold for a death she has chosen by refusing to compromise her faith.
The four soloists — soprano Amy Cofield Williamson, mezzo Catrin Davies, tenor Frederic Rey and baritone David Murray — sang brilliantly, investing the requisite gravitas, poignancy and reverence. Especially welcome was the gorgeous sound of soprano Williamson. Instrumental soloists contributed a sensitive accompaniment.
Green rates bravos for drawing such emotional investment from his musicians and singers. Green's courage in pulling out all the emotional stops made this almost flawless performance a near-ecstatic religious experience.
The excitement will continue next month when Green and his chorus and musicians bring us favorite tunes and carols in their annual "Celebration of Christmas" concerts Dec. 6 and 7 at Maryland Hall, plus four "Messiah" performances Dec. 14-16 at St. Anne's Church. Call the Maryland Hall box office at 410-280-5640 to order tickets.