JUlia Holter’s erratic career has taken her from traditional pop to chamber music, from indie to electronica, from avant-garde underground to the Top 20 and most recently to film music. Here, the Los Angeles-based composer has teamed up with the 36-piece Chorus of Opera North for the world premiere of her new live score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film masterpiece, The Passion of Jeanne of Arc. Holter first performed a live soundtrack to the film in LA in 2017. That performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was delayed two years by the pandemic, but Holter continued to write and completed most of this completed score that year.
The newly restored subtitled black-and-white film – which tells the story of the French saint’s religious persecution and execution, with a screenplay drawn from the transcript of their 1431 trial – will be screened above the stage. Holter sits behind a keyboard with the choir and musicians. The sense that anything could happen is reinforced by the provision of earplugs and signs reading “This performance gets loud”. It begins with silence while a mournful trumpet is gently amplified by a drummer to create a death march effect.
The film depends on lingering close-ups of actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti delivering what influential New York critic Pauline Kael once said: “Perhaps the best performance ever put on film”. Falconetti’s mesmerizing array of facial expressions morph from outrage to defiance to tearful sorrow to horror as Joan confronts her inquisitors and ultimately her fate. The score’s brilliance lies in the way it nestles against that face like a shadow: reassured, even beautifully blissful, then angry in intensity. Joan’s slow, handcuffed walk to the trial is accompanied by an eerie voice reverie. A drum rumbles like thunder as the voices around them grow in intensity.
It is remarkable how much the film and the events of 1431 address current issues. One of Joan’s invented “crimes” is wearing men’s clothing. “When God’s mission is finished, I will wear women’s clothes again,” she cries. The misogyny is exposed as cackling male judges enjoy rounding out a 19-year-old young woman to the foreboding music somewhere between Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and Jerry Goldsmith’s Ave Satani from The Omen.
There are some wonderful individual moments. The tenors sound straight out of a medieval abbey, the choir subtly shifts from male to female voices, percussion jingles menacingly as Joan faces the torture chamber, and a bell rings as her fate is sealed. Finally, the reason for these earbuds is becoming clear. As Joan is burned at the stake, flames flicker around her to a crescendo of noise, led by a piercing bagpipe. Somehow there is beauty in the music, as there is ecstasy in Joan’s agony; Falconetti’s face captures the moment when death brings redemption and martyrdom. This is a powerfully fascinating union of image and sound.