Posted May 29, 2013 by D. K. Holm
Outsiders tend to forget how much work goes into plays, movies, and operas. Perhaps operas even more, given that they juggle the synchronization of numerous major art forms, including singing, acting, dancing, music, staging, set design, costumes, and so on. Those seeking a reminder can dip into the enjoyable “making-of” documentary Traviata et nous (Becoming Traviata) from 2012. Philippe Béziat’s film is a Frederick Wiseman style fly-on-the-wall account of high points culled from 90-minutes of footage of a rehearsal for La Traviata stage by director Jean-François Sivadier with conductor Louis Langrée of New York’s Mostly Mozart festival, commissioned by the International Festival of Lyric Art in Aix-en-Provence for performance in 2011. Such productions can be years in the making.
Sivadier, who resembles a cross between Oliver Stone and Fred Armisen, is an engaging director not given to tantrums – on screen, anyway. He directs coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay as Violetta and American tenor Charles Castronovo as Alfredo in what we come to learn is a minimalist staging with modernized quasi-punk garb, sometimes walking them through the blocking, shadowing them with his own gestures, and going over and over some phrases. For example, in the film’s second quarter, Ms. Dessay has trouble with one scene’s opening line: “It’s strange.” They go over the motivation, the gestures, the movements in exacting detail, until the dimensions expand of what otherwise is a passing moment that provides entrée to Violetta’s changing mood. And if you think that opera isn’t hard work, watch the end credits as Ms. Dessay practices the final faint or “fall” of this fallen woman under the guidance of a “faint wrangler,” who does the collapse beautifully over and over as Ms. Dessay struggles with quite getting it, while crew members adjust lights and sweep up glitter from the floor.
Viewers are denied seeing the finished product – but do hear it, as excepts are played over rehearsal moments. Instead, certain objects, such as the sole chandelier used for set-suggestion, are tracked along with the actors and the costumes. One of the most interesting moments is watching the pianist and vocal coach talk about some of the passages from the opera, and later leading one of the singers through Italian pronunciation. The most striking thing about Becoming Traviata is how much the performers seem to enjoy their work, building good will toward them, culminating in a moment when Ms Dessay in street clothes is trying to get to the stage and alarms us when she walks the tightrope of the lip of a thin wall that separates the orchestra pit. That little miniature moment of suspense seems to encapsulate all the anxieties and unknowns attendant on this or any opera production.