Joan of Arc finds voice in oratorio

Published May 6, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!"

So said Norma Desmond, the demented diva of Sunset Boulevard, speaking of the stars of silent film. None had a more amazing face than Renee Maria Falconetti in the 1928 French classic The Passion of St. Joan.

Falconetti's memorable performance can be viewed this weekend, and while there is still no dialogue, there is contemporary music inspired by Carl Dreyer's film, the oratorio Voices of Light by Richard Einhorn. It accompanied a Saturday matinee screening of the film at Mahaffey Theater in a stirring performance by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, vocal soloists and orchestra, conducted by Richard Zielinski.

As Joan of Arc, Falconetti is all face in the constant closeups of Dreyer's film, shown in richly restored black and white on a large screen over the stage. And what a face it is: lightly pitted skin, furrowed brow, prominent nose, sensual lips and incredible wide eyes. Often a single tear trails down her cheek.

The film's other faces, those of Joan's inquisitors at the trial that found her guilty of heresy for having visions, hearing voices and dressing in men's clothes, are equally striking. The wrinkled, cynical faces of these priests epitomize corruption.

The Einhorn oratorio enhances the film beautifully. The chantlike writing for chorus and soloists casts a potent spell, especially the ethereal female quartet representing the "Spirits of Joan." The libretto includes passages from the Bible and writings of medieval women and Joan herself, but its impact is mainly impressionistic. The film has French and English subtitles.

The score features mournful solos for cello when Joan recites the Lord's Prayer and violin, and the strings reach an agitated fever pitch when the martyred saint is burned at the stake. Zielinski, with the film showing on a monitor on the podium, did a fine job of keeping it all together.

Voices of Light is an intense, darkly claustrophobic experience. Walking out of Mahaffey into the afternoon sunlight was disorienting, like getting woken up from a confusing, fragmented dream. The one thing I remembered with complete and utter clarity was Falconetti's face.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.



Voices of Light

The silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc will be accompanied by the Richard Einhorn oratorio, performed by the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, vocal soloists and orchestra, at 4 p.m. today at Morsani Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $17.50-$32.50. (813) 229-7827.