Review: A Delicate Fire

An eclectic and occasionally carnal offering from one of Sydney's most versatile performance companies.

“My tongue is frozen, and suddenly
   A delicate fire spreads over
     My body, my ears hear only
        Drumming, the blindness engulfing.”

Fragment 31, Sappho

Sydney company Pinchgut Opera, specialists in the forgotten masterpieces of the Baroque, debuted their first film last month: A Delicate Fire. Born during the collapse of Australia’s arts industries, it showcases the works of Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), one of the most prolific composers of the Venetian Baroque era and one of the few women of her time to publish under her own name. The film, blending gritty surrealism with more classical elements of music and dance, is an uncanny and unashamedly Australian meditation on the arts, love, and isolation in the age of coronavirus.

The film is broken up into a collection of songs (madrigali), each seamlessly drifting into each other, as if they were merely sequential arias. The first memorable visual feature is the intelligent costuming that comes to define the film: sterile, inoffensive, kitsch, exquisitely out of place and entirely charming, the clothing is both modern and alien. With a full set of period instruments, we see the musicians intently focussed on their craft, serene and once again in their element.

The genius of the film is in its sustained interest with the suburban landscape, and its blurring of a contemporary Australian haunting with an unfamiliar genre. In Silentio Nocivo (Harmful Silence) we see a scrolling portrait of the quiet scenes of a family home: the bubble baths, lamps, and unmade beds of any suburban interior. The spinning clothesline – a recurring motif – is always just within frame, a present reminder of the domesticity of Australian life. Superimposed on the works of Strozzi, we are forced to consider not just the obfuscation of female artists within history, but the invisible and commonplace barriers that still exist in the home.

“The music of heaven is harsh and discordant compared to the melodies I have prepared” (Conclusione dell’opera)

The sliding scenery then shifts to a studio of marble sculptures and paintings – an instant transition to high culture and its trappings. As we then return to a car and a roadkill deer, the angst of suburban existence – and Australia’s cultural cringe – is brought into focus. Still, the toiling forward momentum of the film carries onwards, elegantly accompanied by dancers Allie Graham and Neale Whittaker, their presence a recurring highlight.

In Canto di bella bocca (A song of beautiful lips) the film is at its most explicitly homoerotic, pitching soprano Taryn Fiebig and mezzo Anna Dowsley on a grassy knoll, posed in an evocation of a baroque painting. The power suit and the uncanniness of the costuming makes the scene deliciously figurative. But the scenery is more than that, with its Australian eucalypts and spinifexes in the background, and the washing line in the upper corner. This is a transplanted still life, from old Venice to modern Australia; expression caught between language and music and worlds, trying to create something new.

“Two faithful souls in love… dying in an ecstasy of healing and life” (Sonetto. Proemio dell’opera #2)

In a scene where the women cut open and eat watermelons the film enters its most haphazardly sensual, with hazy undertones of carnality and innocent love. And then we’re in the morning, as if we were only in a daze, with a light snow falling – although we are unsure if it is snow or the ash that cast a similar gloom across the national consciousness only a year ago.

As maybe the most self-aware of all art forms, opera thrives on the irony and ridiculousness of its existence: staged, fabricated, and extravagant. As the camera zooms out, revealing the set and the many behind the scenes workers who scurry about to make the production happen, we’re brought into the world of art and production. We are immediately reminded of the many left adrift when this industry was shut down.

“Perhaps I will be hailed as Sappho reborn” (Sonetto. Proemio dell’opera #1)

The climax of the film is Strozzi’s Lamento (Lament). “O my tears,” sings Dowsley, as she is circled by the camera in a small phone booth. There is no great wisdom in these lyrics (usually derivative and unexciting) but the framing of the lament hints at the parallels with Greek poet Sappho, a constant (if not understated) reference in the film. One wonders if the obliqueness of this homoeroticism is artistically informed, or based on a sensitivity to the target audience. Dowsley’s technique is in full aching showcase, her acting and agitation in the phone booth both visceral and disarming.

The film is approachable, orchestrally gorgeous, and subjective enough to give a viewer something to chew over. With its centring of an overlooked female composer, imaginative staging, and intelligent and sustained control of pacing and mood, A Delicate Fire would be a highlight in any year – let alone this one.

A Delicate Fire is available to stream in Australia until December 13 at athome.pinchgutopera.com.au.

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