Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Becoming Traviata is a making-of film following a stripped-down production of Verdi’s opera La traviata in the weeks leading up to its performance. The opera’s story is centered on the character Violetta, a sickly woman struggling to support a love affair and her health. But the documentary isn’t really about that…
It’s about Natalie Dessay, the soprano playing Violetta. We watch her, somewhat like a production company intern, as the director, Jean-François Sivadier, guides her through all her stage movements, all of her character’s feelings and motivations. The working relationship between the two is liquid, clear: a back-and-forth collaboration that offers an intimate look at opera to watchers, like me, who don’t know an aria from a coloratura.
Being the barbarian to the form I am, I watched wide-eyed as Dessay sang Violetta to life. In gym clothes, with hair like she just skydived onto stage, Dessay hit notes in the ionosphere and with apparent ease, while also acting, taking direction, and speaking Italian. Her performance, which is the heartbeat of the documentary, bordered on superhuman. But that held my interest for only so long.
I should say that whenever I’ve tried to get into opera music — I blame Werner Herzog’s stuff for this — I found it too high-brow, bombastic and melodramatic. But Becoming Traviata humanizes that grandeur by showing the entire show, basically, through a collage of rehearsals. This allows people like me to appreciate the performances — to marvel at the musicianship, the amount of planning needed and the number of people involved.
But I can only be mind-blown over opera singing for about an hour, it seems. After those 60 minutes passed, the movie became a task, something I had to finish. It was still beautiful, to be sure, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as it had been. Perhaps more interviews with the musicians and stage designers would have fleshed things out. Perhaps fights between Dessay and Sivadier would have peppered the doc with some real-life drama. I don’t know. Perhaps just after a point you need a taste for opera to keep watching Becoming Traviata intently.
Becoming Traviata is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre. It is directed by Philippe Béziat. In French.