By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
A Delicate Fire
An opera film produced by Pinchgut Opera featuring the music of Barbara Strozzi
Co-created by Erin Helyard, Constantine Costi and Charlotte Mungomery
Available for $30 here, unlimited streaming until 13th December
Cast and Creatives:
Erin Helyard – Musical Director, Conductor and Keyboards
Constantine Costi – Director
Charlotte Mungomery – Production Designer
Dimitri Zaunders – Director of Photography
James Vaughan – Editor
Shannon Burns – Choreographer
Ella Butler – Art Director
Anna Dowsley – Mezzo soprano
Taryn Fiebig – Soprano
Chloe Lankshear – Soprano
Keara Donohoe – Mezzo soprano
Nicholas Jones – Tenor
David Greco – Baritone
Andrew O’Connor – Bass
Simon Martyn-Ellis – Theorbo and Baroque Guitar
Hannah Lane – Baroque Harp
Anthea Cottee – Cello, Viola da Gamba and Lirone
Matthew Greco – Violin
Karina Schmitz – Violin
Allie Graham – Dancer
Neale Whittaker – Dancer
During a pandemic which emptied theatres around the world, many arts organisations have provided content to watch online. Some have uploaded past concerts for free to a YouTube channel, others have live-streamed concerts. This is a new space to move in; online content is notoriously hard to monetise because there’s simply so much available for free, or for minimal monthly subscriptions.
Pinchgut Opera’s A Delicate Fire is the first staged opera film I have seen emerge out of this wave of online offerings. At sixty minutes long, it’s a lovely compact concept: a series of staged vignettes, each one set to a madrigal composed by Barbara Strozzi. Strozzi sounds like an impressive figure. Born out of wedlock in Venice in the 17th century, she became an accomplished singer and published 125 pieces of vocal music under her own name.
Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley weaves between the various fragments, acting as the intermediary between the viewers at home and the set-pieces on screen (at times literally walking from one to another across a production area). She symbolises Strozzi, who was only twenty-five when she published her first collection of madrigals.
Unsurprisingly the vocal performances are impressive across the board. Throughout the hour the busy, melismatic textures typical of Baroque music are handled with dexterity and delicacy by the ensemble. This nuanced phrasing was a highlight. It was also a pleasure to see the instrumental ensemble actively woven into the staging, with close-ups of the musicians as they performed. Their unforced animation was engaging to watch.
Dramatically, A Delicate Fire gets off to a slow start. The first few madrigals are staged in a languid and contemplative fashion- Dowsley gets into a car, drives, and arrives at a house. The madrigal Silentio nocivo (Harmful Silence) is paired with a continuous panning shot inside the house. The singers are poised in various positions: sitting at a table, inside a bath filled with bubbles, standing next to a car with headlights illuminating a fallen deer.
From an audience standpoint this symbolic, abstract staging was not particularly engaging so early in the piece. The following duet, Sonetto Proemio dell’opera, sung by Dowsley and Taryn Fiebig, sees the two singers shot separately, staring straight into the camera. During this moment I found myself missing the interaction which naturally emerges when two singers inhabit the same space.
The energy picks up from this point onwards. As the instrumental ensemble perform Tarquinio Merula’s Ballo detto Eccardo, Op. 12, the animated character of the piece is matched by the action on screen. Behind the musicians the singers bustle around the warehouse, rolling out patches of grass, sweeping the stage, rolling wooden crates across the floor, even vacuuming…
I particularly enjoyed the staging of the next few vignettes, which possessed a light touch of humour and originality. L’Humano Affetto (Human Affections) begins with a truck backing into shot, the rear trailer doors opening to reveal four singers and two dancers. The singers disembark, flanking the truck as the two dancers (Allie Graham and Neale Whittaker) create moving tableaus, shifting within the confined space along with the words of the madrigal.
Il contrasto de’ cinque sensi (The Quarrel of the Five Senses) is given a wry treatment. As the ensemble sing through the senses (‘I see, I hear, I taste, I smell’) we’re shown a sea of faces mirroring the words: holding up magnifying glasses, bobbing their heads while plugged into 80s Walkmans, posing with ice creams, and inhaling the scent of red roses. It’s very cute.
There are moments where the creative team clearly let themselves have fun and experiment with the medium of film. I particularly enjoyed the recurring use of mirrors to reveal members of the ensemble in different dimensions. A stylish and unexpected transition between vignettes saw two singers retrieve black garments from underneath a thick layer of black dust.
While I don’t have a background in dance, I found the performances by Graham and Whittaker stunningly evocative (and complementary to the chosen pieces). They united the graceful lines of ballet with the fluid contortions of contemporary dance.
As the arts industry marches into a brave new world, one which hopefully brings with it fresh ideas, it’s lovely to see smaller arts organisations embracing the unconventional. Pinchgut Opera is to be commended on producing a fresh and unpretentious work in this destabilising climate. I look forward to witnessing what they produce next.