According to the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, was voted “the 9th greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2012 critic’s poll.” While silent films were usually accompanied by keyboard performers, particularly organists playing “theatre organs” built by pipe organ companies such as Wurlitzer and Barton, other musical solutions were crafted over the years in order to heighten the effect of the visual presentation.

The Orlando Consort, a quartet of men’s voices enlarged to a quintet for these Jeanne d’Arc performances, chose as a performing project the accompanying of this film with music which, except for plainsong, was composed during Joan’s lifetime. The composers were not listed in the program; had they been, it is likely that only early-music specialists would have recognized more than three or four of the seventeen (and one of those was the ubiquitous “anonymous”). Unfortunately, the texts were also not included, thus leaving the Duke Performances audience at Baldwin Auditorium to try to decipher the relationship between the various Latin texts and the action occurring on the film screen.

As it turns out, much information is available about the composers and the music as it relates to specific film scenes, online here. It would have been helpful to have had this information in print form to study before the program began.

The film itself earned its laurels well, with an intensely emotional performance by Renée Maria Falconetti in the title role. The original Danish subtitles were retained and translated into English, but there were long stretches of film with silent dialogue which was never revealed to the audience.

The singers (countertenor Matthew Venner, tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith, baritone Donald Greig, and bass Robert MacDonald) are experts in the vivid rhythmic complexities of the early 15-century motet. Standing unobtrusively to the left-hand side of the stage, with stand lights which did not distract from the film, they wove their vocal commentaries into the film’s scenes in a way which never focused attention on the singing, but let it carry the mood of Jeanne’s time. The singing was uniformly both beautiful and “right” in the musicological sense, save for occasional flatting in the Superius part. (One can argue with the program’s statement that “it is now generally accepted that all of the music [on the program] was performed by voices alone, even where it is untexted,” but that is a topic better discussed at musicological society meetings.)

In sum, this is a fascinating film and the concert was a welcome opportunity to hear music of another age which deserves repetition, but with more information needed to allow the audience a richer experience.