According to my calculations, we are now in our third winter of discontent. I missed the original Richard III by a few hundred years but I remember the second in 1978. I thought of this as I headed to catch the train to Huddersfield to see the screening of a restored print of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, with the first performance of a new score by the American musician and composer Julia Holter.
The production had been delayed by the pandemic so I had been looking forward to it for sometime. The word ‘delayed’ is pertinent here as every time I hear it I think of northern trains along with the word ‘cancelled’. So the thought of the train to Huddersfield from Manchester filled me full of dread and anxiety. Welcome to travel in 2022.
As it happened, the train was on time – packed but on time. On my arrival I was greeted by the statue of Harold Wilson, surely our last best prime minister. He would have sorted the trains out. Huddersfield Town Hall is a short walk. It is a beautiful Grade II listed building designed by John Henry Abbey in 1881 and home to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival of which tonight’s performance was a part.
For those of you who haven’t see Dreyer’s film, it is astonishing. For those of you who have seen it, it is unforgettable. A review in the 1929 New York Times said: “it makes worthy pictures of the past look like tinsel sham”. At its heart is is an acting masterclass by Renee Jeanne Falconetti as Joan of Arc and one of the greatest roles I’ve ever seen. Based on the transcripts of Joan’s trial after her capture in 1431, Falconetti’s portrayal is intense, moving and profound as she is questioned, insulted, spat at and tortured by her inquisitors. The violence of their male gaze reigns down upon Joan’s innocent, tearful face. It is all too human yet full of stoic strength and piety. God is on her side.
Holter’s new score matches the intensity of Falconetti’s performance. With her band from LA, she is joined on stage with the 36-strong choir of Opera North. She says: “I had the entire chorus of Opera North to work with, so I had to figure out a way to bring out that ‘sublime unintelligibility’ with a group of operatic voices as well as my own.” As a musical theme, she adapts medieval chants to Joan’s story as well as the eerie sound of chains as she moves from prison to court. Questions are barked at Joan with short sharp drum rolls as the music rises to the climatic cacophony of her immolation.
The furious editing of her death and the violent reaction of the crowd is given an equally furious voice by Holter’s wall of sound backed by the bagpipes and synth of Tasha Wada supported by the trumpet and electronics of Sarah Belle Reid and the percussion of Corey Fogel. A musical climax worthy of Joan’s martyrdom. It adds to the growing reputation and catalogue of Opera North’s ongoing and pioneering FILMusic project that commissions new scores from contemporary composers for classic silent movies.
It was beautiful and well worth the wait. It was so good I did think about going to see the performance at the Barbican in London but Avanti West Coast put paid to that fantasy.
Main image by Robert Hamilton