Capturing the Creative Process as Meditative Transcendence to Becoming Traviata.

Giuseppi Verdi’s La Traviata is, without a doubt, an operatic masterpiece.  As such, it sits comfortably at the top-tier of the operatic repertoire worldwide.  Unquestionably top ten, if not top five or top three.

It is a love tragedy of mythic proportions with all the right ingredients:  a ravishingly seductive score; memorable tunes frequently sampled today; and a classically melodramatic tragic end.   No wonder the work has often fascinated film directors in their desire to “fix” the creative process into film, warranting a longer shelf life than a live theatrical run.

The Italian theatre and film director Mario Lanfranchi — the first to bring opera to the small screen — did a version in 1967.    Franco Zeffirelli, of 1968’s Romeo and Juliet fame —  directed another version in 1983 with Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo.

Now comes a scaled-down version from Jean-François Sivadier, a theatre and opera director and an actor himself.   This one stars the world-renown coloratura soprano  Natalie Dessay as Violetta and the American tenor Charles Castronovo as Alfredo.   The production, commissioned for the International Festival of Lyric Art in Aix-en-Provence in 2011, was captured in its creation by the documentary director Philippe Béziat.  The work is titled Becoming Traviata, and it is a joy to watch.  It is literally, in situ, the creation of a master work, and we are witnesses to the give-and-take of the art of collaboration.

The documentary film moves at the pace of the opera itself.  There is the initial adjustment to the material, the identification of characters, a statement of the theatrical perspective for the Aix-en-Provence production.  But before you know it, we are participants in Violetta’s big Parisian party in Act I.  And, of course, that famous toasting song (Brindisi).

In his typical documentary style, Philippe Béziat keeps the camera close to the set, in the proximity of the stage.  Only on two occasions are we taken out of this theatre-box setting.  One was successful, as the artistic technicians discuss the details over an outdoor luncheon in a stereotypically Provencal setting.  A sort of “Luncheon of the Boating Party” without the boat.   Near the end, Béziat moves us out from the tense stage setting, where the camera wonders through the streets of Aix-en-Provence.  At first, I thought we were entering the festival arena to witness the finished product.  Not so.  This was an unavoidable deficit.

Nonetheless, the film highlights the strength of the performances of the Aix-en-Provence production.  Maybe it is because Sivadier is an actor himself that he focuses so much on the physical and emotional expressions of his actors.  Watching the film, I reached a new appreciation for the highly complex skills of these operatic artists:  not only do they have to sing those complicated songs, they have to convey the emotions and move the narrative along with a twist of the torso, each lifted finger, that gentle hand slide along the face, or that rough thrust of currency to one’s face as a sign of disgust and humiliation.  No step, no gesture is wasted.  Each one is choreographed to match the dramatic mood of Verdi’s musical narrative.  What a valentine to the job of a director.

The cast is magnificent.  Natalie Dessay’s Violetta is mesmerizing in every scene and in every frame.  She is both playful and deadly serious, always delivering the stellar performance demanded by Sivadier both musically and dramatically.  She is simply spellbinding, even as we witness her repeated choreographed death fall as the credits run at the end.

In contrast to the lush and ornamented score, Sivadier gives us minimal, yet effective, staging:  a bare crystal chandelier; rolled panels of fabric depicting clouds or a field of flowers straight from Monet; a single red flower in a simple drinking glass.  Spare so as not to distract from the music and the dramatic action.   And when flourish is appropriate, Sivadier delivers it, and delivers it heavy:  the make-up removal cold crème; gold leaf showering from the heavens; the tense gesture of a death collapse.  And through it all, the creative process is fixed on film and on the soundtrack.  Rehearsals are tweaked on film while we hear the finished work in the background.  Perfection is reached before our very eyes.  Like the final opera itself, we, the audience, are transformed by the journey.  Like Dessay’s Violetta, we too are molded by the skills of the artist.  By Sivadier for La Traviata, and by Béziat in Becoming Traviata.  As the titular meaning, Natalie Dessay is the classic “Fallen Woman/Traviata” and we, the viewer, have fallen along with her.  Fallen in love.

Grade B+

Review by Armin Callo