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May 21, 2013

Becoming Traviata


Traviata et Nous
Philippe Beziat - 2012
Distrib Films

Well, yes, I'm finding myself outside my usual zones here, as I don't cover many documentaries, much less one about the making of an opera. I would have felt less like an outsider had this documentary flashed the names of the principle artists who appear here. Most people will be able to figure out that Natalie Dessay is the main performer who we see mostly in rehearsal, and that Jean-Francois Sivadier is the director, and that the guy addressed as Ludovic is Ludovic Tezier. Those with little or no familiarity with those currently working in opera are left in the dark.

What I did like is that, even fleetingly, Beziat acknowledges some of the behind the scenes people that make up a production. Several of the opening shots are of a workshop, with rows of paint buckets and brushes. A pair of craftsmen repair a chandelier first seen illuminated, hanging from a tree. While Dessay is rehearsing, a young woman is sweeping the floor. One woman is cutting cloth, later seen as part of the costume of a chorus of gypsies.

becoming traviata.jpg

The original French title is a bit puzzling. Translated as "Traviata and us", who is "us"? Even a little bit of geographic context might have helped in letting the audience know that there is an international crew working in Aix-en-Provence, France, on a 19th Centry Italian opera produced in a contemporary setting. There are suggestions that Dessay finds her role at Violetta challenging, to the point where she'll grab any opportunity not to rehearse. For someone like myself, there are more questions than answers as to what makes the role of Violetta difficult, and does Sivadier's putting the opera in modern dress make Verdi any more meaningful to a contemporary audience?

Some of the music should be familiar, even for those with the most casual acquaintance with opera of any kind. The story of La Traviata, while not mentioned in the film, would be known to those who've seen Greta Garbo coughing herself to death in Camille. Philippe Beziat makes some interesting choices so that we see some of the opera fragments in various stages of development, while the what we hear is one version of the performance. And there are, to be sure, some nice moments, particularly between Dessay and Sivadier, alternating between artistic alignment and moments of friction. There were times when I wish others, aside from one of the production assistants, had been addressing the camera about the opera and the artistic process involved. Were the viewer not kept at arms length for most of this documentary, this would have been more truly about La Traviata and "us".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 21, 2013 08:32 AM


Peter - You make an excellent point. I am a classical/opera listener, but bemoan the fact that our numbers are dwindling. A film like this could have performed a valuable service of widening the reach of opera - especially one so accessible at to be considered an entry point for new opera goers. Instead it sounds like it is preaching to the choir. And YES, an opera is a massively collaborative process; its breadth of collaborators should be addressed.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at May 21, 2013 09:44 AM