Philadelphia: Heavenly Voices

Alyssa Timin
Alyssa Timin
Photo by Ross Hoffman

The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia’s program notes coolly observe that this is its 131st consecutive performance season. After more than a century, the one-hundred-plus member chorus still puts on quite a show. On the evening of Sunday, May 1st, the group presented an intensely beautiful program: opening with Francis Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge Noir, the main attraction was Carl Dreyer’s silent film classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light.

Poulenc’s short work pairs naturally with the feature length film; both pay eerie and passionate homage to female Catholic icons linked specifically to the national history of France. La Vierge Noir (the Black Virgin) is a twelfth-century wooden statue of Mary and Jesus housed at the cliffside shrine of Rocamadour in southern France. Poulenc made a pilgrimage there following the death of his friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud, and wrote the Litanies only a week after his visit. The text, an extended prayer, addresses the Holy Trinity as well as Mary, and asks, “Queen before whom Saint Louis, on bended knee, asked for the happiness of France, pray for us….Queen, whose banners have won battles, pray for us.” Scored for organ (here played by Alan Morrison) and female voices, the piece pits the dissonant, demonic rumbling of the organ against a choir of angels. The struggle grows, a wide chasm of lament, then ends suddenly. The house lights darken.

Richard Einhorn compares his discovery of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to stumbling upon the Taj Mahal. Understandably the 1928 film is extraordinary in both its direction and performance, and comes with a fascinating back-story. After the negative and most of the prints of the film were destroyed in a mysterious warehouse fire, Dreyer reconstructed the entire film from surviving outtake footage. This version was, amazingly, destroyed in a second fire. Corrupt prints of the film circulated for decades, until, in 1981, several film cans from the ’20s were found at the back of a closet in a mental institution in Oslo, Norway. Shipped unopened to the Norwegian Film Institute, the cans turned out to contain a nearly perfect copy of the original version of The Passion of Joan of Arc.

One is tempted not to believe such a thing, and yet there it is in the program. It is even harder to know what to make of the details of the life of Jeanne d’Arc. As an illiterate teenager, she heard voices that charged her with the mission of reuniting France, divided and embattled with England in the Hundred Years’ War. At seventeen, dressed as a man, she made her way to the court of the exiled dauphin, Charles, won an audience with him and convinced him to allow her to try to help lift the siege of Orleans. She and the French army succeeded and continued to succeed for about a year. She worked as a mercenary and befriended soldiers with names like “The Bastard of Orleans” and “La Hire” (The Rage). Ultimately she was captured in battle, sold to the English, and delivered into the hands of the Inquisition.

This is where the film begins. Staging her trial and execution, it compresses seven months of interrogation into a single day. The editing is sharp, almost jagged. The claustrophobic close-ups of androgynously beautiful Renée Falconetti are cut with quick shots of her judges’ complex expressions, her hair scattered on the floor of her cell, birds flying and, in an upside down aerial shot, people running. The script of the film is taken directly from the transcripts of the trial, which contributes poignancy to those moments of white text on black screen. “Respond!” her inquisitors demand, “Are you in a state of grace?” She looks around for help, and the camera looks with her, but nowhere is it to be found. The film’s raw stare continues through the scene of her execution, which shows her figure burning in the fire.

Voices of Light is the merciful counterpoint to The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s brutality, a lyrical work with surprising tenderness despite requiring 150 musicians. The anchor of the piece, Joan’s voice, is a chanted duet sung in this performance by Shari Alise Wilson and Veronica Chapman-Smith. Other solo voices included soprano Laura Heimes, a frequent soloist with Mendelssohn Club and a singer worth singling out, mezzo-soprano Lorie Gratis, tenor Matthew Loyal Smith, and bass-baritone Branch Fields. Conducted with the film by handsomely silver-haired Alan Harler, the piece is divided into fourteen short “chapters” but moves seamlessly.

The text is a nest of Biblical verses, excerpts from Joan’s letters, the writings of other mystics, and even “The Vices of Women,” a 13th century poem. Images of heroism, femaleness, and fire circulate, weaving faith (“Flee, flee the cave of the ancient destroyer and come, coming into the palace of the king”) with despair (“Destroy us not all together”). St. Hildegard of Bingen writes, “Our king is swift to receive the blood of innocents. But over the same blood, the clouds are grieving….Ah! Joan, Joan!” Joan herself, when asked by her jailor, “Et la grande victoire?” responds, “My martyrdom.”

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Alyssa Timin works as program associate at the Philadelphia Music Project, where she helps to fund Greater Philly’s flourishing music scene. She edits PMP’s self-titled in-house magazine to which she recently contributed a feature article on interdisciplinary performance.