Out of Renaissance Croatia, the haunting story of a biblical heroine
As the British novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote "the past is a foreign country," and it often feels all the more foreign the further back you go. Medieval music and poetry can be a difficult sell for today's audiences, as surface charms translate but a deeper engagement with the materials proves elusive. It takes an eloquent artist and a patient scholar to recruit and arrange the relics of a truly distant past in a way that creates a work capable of enthralling modern listeners.
And that is exactly what the Croatian singer and musicologist Katarina Livljanic has accomplished in a project called "Judith," which she performed last night in Jordan Hall with her Dialogos ensemble as part of the Boston Early Music Festival. The work is based on the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, as retold in epic verse by the 16th-century Dalmatian poet Marko Marulic. The original poem had no surviving music, so Livljanic created her own by fashioning a collage from various chant sources (Gregorian and Glagolitic) and at key moments, interpolating additional contemporary texts that dramatize the inner thoughts of both characters.
The resulting piece is a mesmerizing and at times hauntingly beautiful work, with Livljanic's pure-toned voice at its core. She is accompanied by two musicians playing an array of flutes, a fiddle, and an ancient Croatian string instrument called the lirica. The undulating vocal lines provide a certain melancholy expressive tug, and a rich array of piquant dissonances makes the music sound both very old and very new. Just when a creeping sense of uniformity rears its head, there are interludes without voice that provide the textural variety required to keep the ears engaged.
Sanda Hrzic has provided a subtle and organic staging that makes poetic use of light and shadows as the fine musicians Norbert Rodenkirchen and Albrecht Maurer drift and hover around the singer. The story is, of course, a grisly one, with a heroine rescuing her people by seducing and beheading the enemy general. But with the interpolated texts, including an ancient dialogue between Judith's mind and soul, the work feels more engaged by interior dimensions than by gore. Ultimately, it is an exercise in a kind of generative musicology at its best, using scholarly tools to plumb the distant past with the goal of imaginatively "reconstructing" a new work that, at least in this form, never existed.