Fuoco Sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song
A film by Jan Schmidt-Garre
Featuring Asmik Grigorian, Barbara Hannigan and Ermonela Jaho
Filmed in Germany, Austria, France, United Kingdom & Sweden
Extras: Performances and warm-ups 
NAXOS 2.110710 DVD 
I’m not an opera buff, nor can I sing, so it might be thought by some that I’m not the ideal person to review a documentary about great singers. However, I feel that the purpose of the film – what makes a great singer – means it can be appreciated by anyone who admires great music and great performers.
The film is a personal quest for its creator and director Jan Schmidt-Garre to answer what possibly is an unanswerable question: how do great singers communicate such extreme emotions to their audiences? He says, as the narrator, at the very start of the film that he thought the era of singers capable of summoning the “sacred fire of song” was over. However, he was forced to change his mind by hearing a voice on the radio that struck him “like a bolt of lightning”. The voice was that of Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who, along with American Barbara Hannigan and Lithuanian Asmik Grigorian, Schmidt-Garre has chosen to help him in his quest. They are interviewed about their singing, their preparation and performances, as well as being filmed backstage, during rehearsals and in performances. In case you wondering why three sopranos were chosen, apparently Schmidt-Garre wanted to include a male singer, but didn’t know any he considered suitable. I suspect there are a few tenors, basses and baritones who might feel a little slighted by this.
Ermonela Jaho is given the most prominence. Her repertoire seems to concentrate on doomed heroines – brief excerpts of her as Cio-Cio-San, Violetta and Angelica are shown – and thus she gets plenty of opportunities to inhabit very emotional roles. At the curtain call for a Munich performance of La traviata, she is totally exhausted, seemingly barely able to stand without help, such was her commitment to portraying her character’s dying moments. Backstage, as she leaves, one of the supporting cast says to her “You made me cry again”, surely convincing evidence of how potent Jaho’s “sacred fire” is. I did wonder how she could keep up such a level of performance, without it affecting her physically, and very possibly mentally as well.
Barbara Hannigan’s repertoire is very different, predominantly contemporary, though she is filmed singing Debussy’s Mélisande and songs by Satie. Asmik Gregorian is best known for her Salomé in Romeo Castellucci’s production of the Strauss opera from the 2018 Salzburg Festival, a performance that had critics in absolute rapture (review).
I pondered in the opening paragraph whether the question that Schmidt-Garre wanted to answer actually had an answer, and about halfway through the film, I had my answer. Jaho described how she had to completely feel everything her character was going through to be able to give that to the audience, despite what teachers and other singers had told her about not doing so. Hannigan talked about not “indulging (in emotions) too much”, because she felt that she needed to “leave room for the audience”, so they could be “part of her story”. Grigorian was somewhere in between, feeling the need to withdraw a little from complete immersion in the character’s emotion, so that she could still focus on the technical side of her singing. So there we have it: diametrically opposed views on how to convey emotions to an audience, telling us that there is no one answer, which is probably not a great surprise to anyone.
The most interesting aspects for me were the preparations that each singer makes for performance. Barbara Hannigan talked about not doing anything “new” on the day of a performance, so her mind isn’t distracted by processing new ideas. Jaho is shown strolling around the stage, like a wild animal staking out its territory, Grigorian warms up her vocal cords, vocalising through a tube into a bowl of water. There is also a sequence with each singer, where they sit in a darkened room, headphones on, listening to their performance, and speaking to the camera about their thought processes. For Jaho, it is the emotional struggles of the character (Angelica), Hannigan, singing and conducting Mahler 4, it is the orchestral prompts, but Grigorian is very different. She focusses on the technical aspects of her performance: what her voice and body need to be doing with a series of instructions to herself: “spine”, “space”, “low, lower” and so on.
So the content is good, and anyone interested in the artistic process will find much to appreciate. Of the three singers, Jaho has impressed me considerably, and I intend seeking out some of her recordings. I note that the three reviews we have of her Covent Garden Butterfly praise her to the skies (review).
Now for the reservations. I don’t wish to sound Anglo-centric here, but I am aware that it is likely to sound exactly that. To be clear, the documentary was very obviously made for an English audience – all interviews and voiceovers are in English. Three of the four principal speakers are, therefore, speaking in a language that is presumably not their native one. All three are very fluent, but there are a number of instances where the idiom is not ideally clear. I wonder if it might have been preferable to invite the speakers to talk in their own language with English subtitles. I for one would have found that perfectly acceptable.
There were other sound-related issues. The voice-overs are by Jan Schmidt-Garre himself, which is appropriate, given that it is his search. However, his voice is very light and soft and, more often than not, placed in the soundtrack over music, which made him very difficult to hear. Similarly, the “fly-on-the-wall” filming of rehearsals and backstage frequently only catch snatches of conversation.
Nor am I entirely convinced by the film’s structure. The narrative flow jumps around a lot, rather than laying out the storyline in a logical sequence. Asmik Grigorian’s involvement in the film is significantly less than the other two; indeed, she does not speak to camera at all in the first third of the film, making it seem as though her inclusion was almost an afterthought.
The extras actually run for longer than the film itself. Among them is a performance of five of Satie’s Gnossiennes by Reinbert de Leeuw, which might seem a rather strange inclusion, but is there for a very good reason. He was a long-time accompanist of Barbara Hannigan, and appears in the film with her, clearly in poor health. One of the extras is a recital with her at Aldeburgh in 2019, his last public performance, before his death in February 2020. Also among the extras are the pre-performance warm-ups of each singer, which are interesting, though hardly riveting; Hannigan’s lasts almost half an hour.
The cinematography is good, the image quality likewise, but there are the various sound-related issues. The booklet consists of an interview with Jan Schmidt-Garre, which does help draw out some of the ideas that perhaps were not made clear in the film.
There is no doubt that there is a lot here that is good, and anyone interested in opera will get a good deal from it. It’s just that it could have been a lot better.
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NTSC 16:9, PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround
Subtitles: English (for words not sung or spoken in English only), German, Russian, French, Korean, Japanese