Becoming Traviata

OK, I’m gonna get artsy-fartsy on you. We saw this documentary Becoming Traviata, on the staging of Verdi’s opera for a new performance at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and I loved it.

If you’re into opera or stagecraft, this would make a great double-feature with Wagner’s Dream, even as, in some ways, the two films are polar opposites. Where Dream was centered around an amazing piece of technology used in the staging, Becoming Traviata is almost entirely focused on the performances, especially the dramatic development of Natalie Dessay as she and the director Jean-Francois Sivadier work their way through understanding Violetta.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this more than Dream, even though Dream is very impressive. First, it’s very intimate. Dessay is a captivating soprano coloratura and, while obviously very kick-ass, positively humble seeming as she approaches this iconic role.

This leads to everything seeming very relaxed. Partly, I’m sure, this is because there is no 45-ton apparatus (and equivalent budget) at stake. But culturally, occupationally, artistically, there is as much at stake in a “low-budget” performance, if not more. It’s naked talent, raw performance, and nobody’s going to care if a backdrop doesn’t quite unfurl perfectly. No excuses.

Second, I like Verdi more than Wagner. Not that I listen to either regularly but this is like Michael Bay versus Steven Soderbergh. I can respect the bombast but I enjoy the style of music more. The singing in Wagner tends to be almost bellowing, with vibratos large enough to drive a fat viking chick through. Verdi’s sound is a purer, more subtly stylized kind of singing.

Although the documentary slips into overdubbing at points (essentially montages), most of the time ambient sound recording is used and I pointed out to The Boy that the singing he was hearing was just singing, filling the entire room.

You don’t get that a lot these days.

Breezily directed by Philippe Béziat and seamlessly edited by Cyril Leuthy, the documentary uses artistic advancement to propel things forward. We see later-and-later rehearsals as the movie progresses, and see how things have evolved. One of the very last things they address is how to handle Violetta’s passing—they go with falling to the stage, but with the lights cutting out before she hits the ground.

And then, as the credits start to roll, we see a montage of Dessay working with another woman (a stunt woman?) on how to fall, falling over and over again.

Very charming. I liked it more than The Boy (who liked it all right), and probably more than most of you will. Upon reflection I can’t say why I found it so winning, except that all the inflections on how things can be performed and how they shape the audience’s viewing interests me.

Yeah, might be a little too “inside baseball” for the masses. I could watch it again.

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