Review: A Delicate Fire28 November 2020
Content warning: homophobia and death (both in the spoilers section)
A Delicate Fire is an operatic movie filmed under COVID-safe conditions by Pinchgut Opera, using the music of 17th century Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi. It is an exploration of romantic love, using Strozzi’s music as inspiration.
Strozzi was a musical powerhouse of her time, publishing eight volumes of music, most of which was written for voice. Through the connections of her poet probably-father (either illegitimate or adoptive), Giulio Strozzi, she was able to have her music performed in small-scale endeavours attended by the musical elite of the Italian Peninsula. Strozzi was a singer herself, and she wrote beautifully for the voice.
A Delicate Fire mostly uses material from Strozzi’s first book of madrigals, but also includes some of her instrumental music and a beautifully-sung rendition of “Lamento” (also known as “Lagrime Mie”), which is one of my favourite Strozzi pieces. The title of the film is a reference to Sappho’s thirty-first fragment of poetry. Sappho’s poetry, translated from Ancient Greek many times over, is known for its intense emotion and very gay subject matter. She is the reason we have the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” to describe women attracted to women (though these are not the only terms since queerness is a huge spectrum of identities).
I am pleased to see an opera company performing Strozzi’s music with such astounding skill. The instrumentalists and vocal ensemble are also beautifully integrated into the film, giving the sense of a Greek chorus commenting on the action. It is also great that the film’s primary plot features an age-gap romance between two women, played by mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley and soprano Taryn Fiebig. The elegant, slice-of-life aesthetic of the early parts of the film centred on these women reminded me a great deal of Carol (2015).
Overall, however, I have mixed feelings.
The music and visuals are stunning. This film is undeniably a work of art, a treat for the eyes and ears. It is worth watching for the audio-visual experience alone, and to familiarise oneself with the work of a wonderful composer who deserves more recognition.
I did find myself wishing the cast were more racially diverse, however, and there were some odd direction choices in the performance of “Vecchio amante” that caused serious incongruity between the mood of the text and the singers’ performance that I do not feel was adequately addressed.
Additionally, the plot of the film is somewhat thin and relies on external information provided by Pinchgut to understand what is happening at times.
I will have to spoil the plot for the following two paragraphs of this review. I will also be spoiling the end of Supernatural and some aspects of The 100.
Something I found very frustrating in the plot of the film is the fact that one of the women in the primary relationship dies, while the heterosexual couple is permitted to remain alive. Death is not unusual in opera, and it does make sense for the text of Strozzi’s music. However, this does not exist in a vacuum. In a cultural context where Supernatural’s long-running queerbaited ship Destiel is made canon only for Castiel to be killed, and for Lexa to die very quickly after sleeping with Clarke in The 100, it is frustrating that new operatic works fall into this trap of killing queer characters just when romantic or sexual joy has been attained.
This could have been handled much better, even if death remained a part of the plot. Instead of the surviving half of the couple ending up alone while the male/female couple is still alive, perhaps there could have been signs of a future where she entered a relationship again (preferably with a woman). While there is nothing wrong with being alone, the overwhelming trend in fiction of same-gender couples, especially women, being denied the coupled-up “happily ever after” regularly afforded to heterosexuals is too serious to ignore. There is some indication of healing and maturity in the conclusion of the film, but it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth as a queer woman who is tired of watching people like me die, or be denied what is often a foregone conclusion for fictional heterosexual couples.
As I previously mentioned, the film is not an entirely negative experience. The production quality and artistry are top-notch, even if the plot is a little thin. It’s opera. The plot often takes a backseat to the music. Additionally, women composers are still disgustingly underrepresented among major Australian classical music organisations, so I am in favour of anything that evens the playing field even a small amount.
While I am glad I watched the film once, I probably will not watch it again.
A Delicate Fire is available on Pinchgut Opera’s website for Australian viewers until 13 December 2020 for $30. An international release is intended in 2021.