IN: Reviews

Opera from Once-Silent Lips

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Section of orchestra and singers at opening titles.

“This is the future of music” proclaimed Professor Sheldon Mirowitz, who heads the film scoring program at the Berklee School of Music. He was standing amid a dozen musicians, addressing the large audience at Beverly’s historic Cabot Cinema there to see the 90-year old silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc and hear the young musicians play the score newly created by composers in the program. Seven composers each scored a “reel” of Joan, and then conducted their sections with the orchestra, passing the baton relay-style while the film screened uninterrupted.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film is a landmark creation in the history of cinema; it authentically recreates the 1431 trial and execution of the Maid of Orléans using historical documents and records. Its power comes from Reneé Falconetti’s iconic portrayal of the martyr—unparalleled in its psychological and emotional depth. Dreyer did not limit extreme closeups to his title character, though, and most of the film, except a wrenching 10-minute climax of chaos which rivals Eisenstein in its editing and montage, is silent dialogue and psychodrama. It was intriguing indeed to see how these young composers would relate to and seek to amplify this starkness.

The most fascinating and effective element to this score was the idea to employ singers as well as instruments and have the formerly silent moving lips singing live, creating a cinematic opera of sorts. When the sung dialogue (in English, French, and Latin) fit the actor’s lips exactly, magical moments ensued wherein the silent drama and these long-gone actors literally came to life. Kudos for that! It was a shame that, overall, the orchestra was amplified too loudly over the singers, which made their contributions difficult to follow at times.

Mirowitz started the compositional process by providing seven students (chosen from 300 in Berklee’s film scoring department) small thematic elements, which seemed a necessary step to ensure some logical unity. He encouraged them to interweave and develop this material in their own ways though, and this led to an engaging score, some exemplary moments, and (very few) missteps. At the start, it was uncertain (and unimportant) what musical material was provided to the composers to work with, although over the course of the film it became more evident. There were, somewhat lamentably, lots of open fifths throughout, which might be assumed as a go-to effect in a stark and religious-themed film, but occasionally became a bit tiresome, as if Hans-Peter Zimmer snuck into the choir loft and tinkered with the organ. However the inclusion of live percussion and two synthesizers allowed the composers a vast range of sounds which they all used to great effect, from pipe organs and harps to abstract electronic sounds and otherworldly echo effects on the vocals.

A sold-out Coolidge two nights earlier

The composers, in order, were Shaun Chen, Richard Chen, Luis Zanforlin, Pedro Osuna, Eri Chichibu, Ehood Gershuni, and Eunike Tanzil. Chen took the helm at the start through the initial trial scene and used a good sense of timing to lead the audience through what could have been a tedious section of dialogue. He musically fleshed out the characters (including the amusing choice to score one of the largest and most intimidating men as an alto) and he set the action in motion largely through psychological asides punctuating a brooding underscore. One faux pas was the incorrect text setting of the Latin, although Chen could have been channeling the Poulenc Gloria. The second Chen’s score to Joan’s interrogation in her cell sounded less dynamic, but this could have been to bring us into the enclosed space from the courtyard of the first scene. Chen did capitalize on a turning point in the questioning, when Joan is tricked into giving testimony which would act against her, but he also missed underlining a moment just prior when she describes her victory. Zanforlin’s score covered the torture-room scene, providing one of the distinctly comedic effects of a lazy English horn coupled with a xylophone, depicting two “dweedle-dum-esque” men mocking their prisoner. He also included a very effective impromptu chorus, as all the tribunal try to coerce Joan to sign a false confession. The multiple voices echoed the many characters, and the scoring made economical use of the fact that only 3 males sat in the orchestra.

Osuna took the assignment of the rising action, where the tribunal tempts Joan with the Eucharist if she would sign the confession. When the Blessed Sacrament is brought in, a pure little organ solo is played; it returns in a grotesque form when the priest is ordered to leave, the moment it becomes evident the tribunal was merely using Joan’s faith as a tool for their own ends. After this, she is sentenced to death, and Chichibu’s reel begins. Her work effectively supported the action, now outside and with a growing crowd of onlookers, although no single moment stood out, as Joan signs, but then recants. Gershuni interpreted her retraction and the leadup to her now-inevitable execution. Effective use of silence and the chorus during her (religious) confession and reception of Communion evinced the best connection to the action and the pathos. Tanzil scored the film’s ending, including the execution scene and ensuing riot, with a ten-plus-minute climax of masterful craft and pacing, à-la-Prokofiev’s 2nd Symphony. As evidenced by the emotionally rapt audience’s ovation at its close, the music was inventive and respectful of the film.

See related feature HERE

additional show June 20th at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center,

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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