Becoming Traviata: Film Review

Traviata Still - H 2013
Sophie Dulac Distribution
Doc offers impressive singing and insights into opera's nonmusical dramatic challenges

Philippe Bezait takes viewers behind the scenes of a French opera production.

A behind-the-scenes performance doc that slyly echoes the dramatic swell of the canonical opera being rehearsed, Philippe Bezait's Becoming Traviata watches as the theatrical boundary-pusher Jean-Francois Sivadier directs a production of La Traviata at a festival in Aix-en-Provence. Benefiting from long stretches of intimate rehearsal footage and the presence of star diva Natalie Dessay, the film will appeal to serious buffs but also holds interest for any aesthete curious about the interaction between director and performer.

Taking his cues from Sivadier's play Italienne Avec Orchestre, which invited audiences into dressing rooms and the orchestra pit, Bezait obliquely tells the story of Verdi's opera through sequences that roughly follow the chronology of rehearsal and staging -- setting things up with getting-to-know-each-other chorus scenes, closing with the fully staged sight of the heroine's death, but devoting the bulk of its running time to scenes in which Sivadier and Dessay search for the dramatic essence of her character's heartbreak.

Those well-chosen scenes capture the troupe's efforts to make the physical acting on stage as compelling as the singing: Singers whose powerful voices might intimidate the audience are coached in techniques of making themselves vulnerable; subtle blocking cues communicate the dynamics of a fledgling love affair in ways the text barely touches on. It's assumed that viewers know the story already -- in which Violetta, a jaded courtesan, falls in love with an earnest youngster but is forced to leave him by his father -- but those who don't will absorb enough of the love-and-loss template to appreciate the actors' efforts.

Rehearsal scenes offer the chance to hear these celebrated voices without the trappings of a full production, but Bezait sometimes caps a long bit of rehearsal footage with audio of the orchestra-backed final recordings -- underlining the ability artists must have to see a finished work of art in what outsiders might mistake for a few people tinkering uncertainly in a bare room.

Production Company: Les Films Pelleas

Director: Philippe Bezait

Producer: Philippe Martin

Directors of photography: Raphael O'Byrne, Hichame Alaouie, Ned Burgess, Matthieu Poirot-Delpech

Editor: Cyril Leuthy

No rating, 112 minutes