Becoming Traviata (Traviata et Nous)
A documentary film. Direction: Béziat. 112 minutes. Les Films Pelléas; Arti Film, foreign theatrical distributor. In limited release.
In the documentary Traviata et Nous, filmmaker Philippe Béziat turns his lens on the Aix-en-Provence Festival's 2011 production of Verdi's opera. The English title of the film, Becoming Traviata, seems somehow less inclusive and accurate than a direct translation of the French, i.e. "Traviata and Us." While soprano Natalie Dessay's evolving portrayal of Violetta is undoubtedly the film's focal point, there is a sense that preparing the opera transforms all the personnel involved, not just the woman playing the title character. The emphasis is on process rather than performance, from early staging rehearsals in the studio to the final orchestra dress on the intimate outdoor stage of the Théâtre de l'Archevêché. Béziat includes a few glimpses of the final production, but they are almost an afterthought, a nod to those curious about the look of the finished product, which is as spare and stripped of operatic artifice as the rehearsals.
The movie is structured in three acts, as is Traviata, and Béziat marries each film act to the pivotal scene in the corresponding opera act. After a prologue during which the camera lingers artfully on paintbrushes, crystal chandeliers and a note-taking stage manager, Béziat moves to the meat of Act I — an utterly fascinating first rehearsal of Violetta's "È strano.… Sempre libera." Lean, fit, blonde and ready to throw herself into the role body and soul, Dessay listens carefully as stage director Jean-François Sivadier deconstructs Violetta's emotions with an impish smile and textual perspicacity. Normal humans will find it comforting that even a singer as accomplished as Dessay is intimidated by the technical and emotional demands of this aria. Sivadier's challenge is gentle but pointed: Violetta's Act I aria should be as much fun for a singer of Dessay's ability as "to be or not to be" is for a great Hamlet. Dessay's response is honest and endearing: "Maybe we can talk about it until 5:30?" When she finally gives it a shot, it's brilliant — real, raw and physical. She marks the aria vocally, which only brings her emotional life more sharply into focus.
Elsewhere, Dessay sounds glorious, especially during a work-through of the Act II, scene 1 exchange with Germont. Here, Sivadier encourages Dessay and baritone Ludovic Tézier, an actor of subtlety and dignity, to notice the power play inherent in even the smallest gestures. Alfredo's renunciation of Violetta is replayed multiple times, showing tenor Charles Castronovo careening between fury and desperation. The third act, somewhat foreshortened, spends most of its time exploring Violetta's final moments, increasing the cross-cutting between rehearsals and the actual production, and ending with Dessay's earnest and unintentionally humorous attempts to perfect Violetta's dying fall.
Conductor Louis Langrée says little in the film, but what he does offer is gold. With his sharp ear for detail, he encourages the singers to think like instrumentalists and the players to think like singers. At one point, he encourages the strings, "[Germont] sings 'piangi,' so let's cry.'" The festival chorus responds to Langrée's requests for detailed articulation with glorious, modulated sound but otherwise seems a bit bored and disconnected. Judging by the film, Sivadier spent most of his time engaging with the principals.
There is a moment in the film when Dessay arrives early for a stage rehearsal and entertains herself by walking across the ledge of the orchestra pit, steadying herself as she goes. It's a striking embodiment of the movie's theme — the balancing act between art and life, singing and acting, character and performer. It's also the sort of authentic physical action Sivadier might have coaxed from Dessay, had she been portraying, in that moment, anyone but herself.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER
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