Preview: Dialogos, Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London

The agony and the ecstasy
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The Independent Culture

It's not generally realised that, in parallel with Orthodox chant, the medieval Catholic Slavonic church had its own Glagolitic mass (from the Slavonic glagolu, or word). Next Wednesday, the Purcell Room will host a show featuring Glagolitic music's lone ambassador, Katarina Livljanic, of the early-music group Dialogos, whose crusade goes back to her infancy in Croatia.

Entitled The Agony of Judith, it will consist of a musical rendition of a key poetic text in Croatian literature. "It has long been my dream to make a music-theatre show out of it," says this enthusiastic Sorbonne professor. "Glagolitic singing is quite unlike Bulgarian or Middle Eastern singing. We are much closer to the Italian style, and we use the head register, as is done in opera. This folk music is virtually bel canto."

Some of the traditional singers Livljanic met while doing her researches in Croatia had a double life: singing Glagolitic, as their ancestors did, and earning their bread in Italian opera houses.

The Judith of legend is a great beauty and also a pious Jew: when her countrymen are threatened with annihilation, she infiltrates the enemy Assyrian camp, seduces their leader Holofernes and cuts off his head.

"This version, by our great poet Marko Marulic, may have been taken from the Old Testament, but it was written under the Turkish invasion in the 16th century, so the theme of saving the country from the enemy would have been topical," says Livljanic.

"And it's topical today, but in a different way. Judith may be a national heroine, but I see her as a fanatic, because what she does is crazy. She doesn't trust her own army, she wants to kill the enemy because God is guiding her to do so. This is a dangerous idea"'

In other words, she doesn't want this event to be pigeonholed as mere "early music": she wants our political antennae to be out.

Next Wednesday (0870 380 4300; www.rfh.org.uk)

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