Fuoco Sacro is a film by Jan Schmidt-Garre. It’s subtitled “A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song” and was inspired by Schmidt-Garre’s passion for Italian singing of a slightly earlier era rekindled when he heard Ermonela Jaho on his car radio. This led him to explore how certain singers create something more than “just singing”. In the film he does this by following the lives of three singers; all women (he clearly doesn’t believe that men have this elusive “sacred fire”) and all very different. They are Ermonela Jaho (of course), Barbara Hannigan and Asmik Grigorian. Now these are all singers about whom I have strong opinions and that may colour my view of the film. You have been warned. What follows concentrates on what I think the film tells us about its three principals. The film does this more by show than tell with lots of performance and rehearsal footage as well as interviews.
Ermonela Jaho is the most obvious choice. She fits totally into the mould of the diva of fifty (or more) years ago. She is a fantastic singer and a very good actress but she is also totallky accepting of the world of opera as she found it as a young woman; a pre #metoo character if ever there was one. I first came across here when she was being interviewed by Tony Pappano who was trying desperately to get her to express an opinion and she was trying equally desperately to work out what Pappano’s were so she could express them. It’s impossible to imagine her addressing a conductor as anything other than “maestro”.
This makes her sound like a doormat, which she isn’t. It’s pretty clear that she has chosen to “fit in” so that she can do the artristic thing she really cares about and that the “subservience” is a conscious strategy driven by the circumstances in which she came into pera. She’s Albanian and left Albania for Italy when the regime fell in the 1990s. To put it politely Italians don’t take Albanians entirely seriously so one can imagine the struggle she had to get accepted. She chose a certain path and continues to follow it. It’s mirrored by the repertoire she sings. It’s basically the “soprano dies horribly” stuff; some Verdi, a lot of Puccini, the other verismo dudes. In a sense she’s channeling the pain of being an outsider into these marginalised women and doing it extremely well. There’s more than a touch of Stanislavsky in her approach and the film explores her performance day rituals in some depth.
Barbara Hannigan is a very different cat (though I suppose there’s something of the “Albanian” in a young girl from rural Nova Scotia coming to Toronto). She’s not a compromiser. She chooses her rep and her projects with great care then follows them up with extraordinary committment. Her relationship to audience and character is different to Jano’s. If Jaho becomes the character then the character becomes Hannigan, or at least a part or aspect of her. Where Jaho is almost self destructedly intense Hannigan leaves space for the audience to experience rather than observe the emotion. Where Jaho erases her personality Hannigan projects hers. Other aspects come out in the film too. Hannigan is much more intellectual and is very choosy about who she works with, often forming very strong bonds with individuals (here it’s Reinbert de Leeuw). Jaho, as you would expect, works with whoever she’s hired to work with.
The third singer is Asmik Grigorian. I’m not really sure why she’s in the film. She is, of course, a fantastic young singing actress. In my view she’s one of the most exciting things on the contemporary opera stage. But she’s also very young and doesn’t have as deep a story to tell as the two more mature ladies. Maybe that’s the point. We have a singer who has found an approach that works but hasn’t yet found the practices and rituals that will sustain it. Right now Grigorian is “living on the edge”. She takes huge risks every time she goes on stage and so far she hasn’t fallen off the wire. What happens when she does? We don’t know and this film doesn’t tell us.
Besides the well constructed ninety minutes of Schmidt-Garre’s film there are another ninety minutes of extras on the disk. There’s about 50 minutes of recital footage. It’s “archive” footage not intended for broadcast and it’s a bit rough but interesting. There’s also 40 minutes of the three singers’ warm up routines if you like that kind of thing. The booklet has an interesting interview with the director. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Russian, Korean and Japanese.
Fuoco Sacro is an interesting film. It gets inside the performance and meta-performance practice of three very different but highly effective singers. I’m not sure it finds the secret of the “Sacred Fire” but then ‘m not sure that there is such a thing.
Catalogue number: Naxos NBD0141V