Becoming Traviata is not La Traviata, nor should it be. It isn’t a concert documentary. It is about the creation of a single instance of the opera, specifically the 2011 production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, directed by Jean-François Sivadier and starring Natalie Dessay. A documentary about the creation of a work of art can capture a handful of its greatest moments, but cannot replicate the impact of experiencing the work itself. The film’s director, Philippe Béziat, understands this. Rather than try to capture every facet of this production from start to finish Becoming Traviata focuses on Dessay’s transformation into the protagonist, the courtesan Violetta Valéry.
All of this might seem a little much for someone who isn’t entirely familiar with opera in general, or La Traviata in particular. That’s fair, and this film will certainly be more immediately appealing to cognoscenti. Yet Béziat has not made a film solely for its built-in audience. Becoming Traviata is more interested in the arc of theatrical production and the way that Sivadier and Dessay build a character than it is in the musical minutia of Verdi’s work.
Much of its success comes from Dessay herself. The doomed heroine of La Traviata is one of the greatest roles for a soprano in the entire repertory, the female Hamlet of the operatic corpus. Yet Dessay has only come to Violetta relatively recently, first playing her in 2009. Her relationship to the work is fresh, and open to interpretation alongside Sivadier.
Béziat shows the most crucial moments of her development, highlighting in particular a very long conversation between Sivadier and Dessay in the rehearsal room about just two words in the libretto. “È strano” or “It’s strange,” the a capella moment that serves as introduction to Violetta’s great aria of act one. Rather than simply show us the best footage of Dessay belting out “Sempre libera” (watch that here), Béziat keeps things theoretical for quite some time. Becoming Traviata takes the time to really think about its subject, charting a performance from its inception in the studio to its mortal conclusion on stage.
Dessay is extraordinary. Her moments of joy are a little bit deranged, and her take on the opera’s opening party scene involves a lot of frenzied hand-movement. When her characters are happy her eyes burn with an almost lunatic fire, which can be both thrilling and off-putting (see her rendition of “Glitter and Be Gay”). Yet this is not a comic opera, and her poignant moments are absolutely breathtaking. The thrill here is watching her build up to them, fine-tuning the details of her performance. She is not a “park and bark” singer, but a very physical performer focused on collaborating with Sivadier to perfect even the slightest of details. Béziat’s camera is in love with her and fascinated by her art, capturing both the rough frenzy of the workroom and the absolute triumph of the stage.
Béziat is also very clever about how we get from beginning to end. The film opens with Verdi’s prelude, a haunting piece that references the later themes of the work. Then he shows the first act in the rehearsal studio, before the arrival of the London Symphony Orchestra. The singers workshop their work in sweats, accompanied by a lone piano. The sudden arrival of the orchestra, timed to a powerful chorus, is a stunning moment. Then the action shifts to the stage, still in non-costumed rehearsal mode, for act two. When the dress rehearsal begins, it is time for act three. It’s a simple approach paced perfectly that feels like an entirely natural extension of the work.
Plenty gets skipped over, of course. We get a dose of Sivadier’s strong personality, as well as that of affable conductor Louis Langrée. Yet the other singers are often passed over, Béziat choosing to ignore key arias from her lover and his father. Die-hard fans of La Traviata might be slightly disappointed, but it makes for a much better film. There’s certainly enough of tenor Charles Castronovo as it stands, an immensely talented young singer who cannot, frankly, be described without the word “dreamy.” Yet this is Dessay’s show, her character is the most complex and crucial, and Béziat knows it.
In Becoming Traviata’s final moments we see Dessay and a choreographer workshop her final collapse. We watch her fall over and over; a comic repetition of one of opera’s most tragic moments. This levity represents the film’s perspective in a single moment, a consciousness of the intense performance required to create the grand illusion that is the opera. The film is playful, wise and above all intimate, virtues that may not necessarily be present in La Traviata itself but are a brilliant way to illuminate its character.
The Upside: Becoming Traviata is an expertly paced portrait of an operatic production and its leading lady, who remains one of the greatest living singers.
The Downside: It might be a little too focused, and it is pretty heavily weighted to the first act of the work.
On the Side: Opera director Jean-François Sivadier is an actor himself, a fact that makes a great deal of sense once you’ve seen him charismatically perform the role of director in this film.
Becoming Traviata hits New York City theaters May 15th.