Becoming Traviata documents the exhaustive rehearsals prior to the performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata at the International Festival of Lyric Art in France’s Aix-en-Provence in 2011.
La Traviata, which was composed in 1853, tells the story of the doomed romance between the terminally ill courtesan Violetta and the young bourgeois lad Alfredo. Traditionally, the opera is set in the 1800’s and staged with Liberace-like opulence. The version of La Traviata depicted here, however, is strikingly minimalist and modern looking. There’s very little on-stage decoration and costumes are noticeably contemporary. Staunch opera traditionalists might turn up their noses at the approach taken with this production but stage director Jean-François Sivadier clearly wants to make this classic more accessible for today’s audience.
The minimalist approach also extends to the style of the documentary itself as there’s no narration or interviews in this film just footage of renowned soprano Natalie Dessay (who plays Violetta), other soloists, choirs, the London Symphony Orchestra, director Sivadier, conductor Louis Langrée and the stage crew steadily fashioning their version of the opera.
We may think of these revered classics as untouchable and set in stone with performers simply slotting into an established template. The film shows that nothing could be further from the truth. Opera productions can involve constant evolution and reinterpretation, not just of structural elements like music tempo but also of the emotion and psychology of the characters. This makes for some amusing rehearsals as the urbane director Sivadier tries to impart his vision of Violetta to the zany and extroverted Natalie Dessay. The rehearsals and the build-up to the performance are, if anything, too relaxed, though, with little evidence of febrile artistic temperaments and no major conflicts or tantrums.
Many consider the role of Violetta to be the career pinnacle for any female soprano and fittingly, Dessay delivers a moving and evocative portrait of her. Also, like the rest of the cast, which includes American Charles Castronovo as Alfredo, Dessay sings sublimely.
As well as the performance side of the opera, the film provides intriguing insights into the complexities of staging and lighting all of which need to be carefully integrated to create a seamless production.
Those who love opera (and don’t mind some experimentation) will be enraptured by the powerful emotive performances and the sight of this elaborate production emerging from its raw beginnings. At two hours, however, this functional, straightforward documentary won’t convert those who find opera a yawn.
Nick’s rating: Three stars.
Director(s): Philippe Béziat.
Release date: 3rd Oct 2013
Running time: 120 mins.