Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: Becoming Traviata

A clumsy and sadly missed opportunity to capture the creation of a great opera role by a great singer.

May 16, 2013

-By David Noh


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1377478-Becoming_Traviata_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Verdi’s La Traviata is one of the greatest—some say the greatest—roles for a soprano in all opera. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux camelias (aka Camille), it limns the short, tragic but sometimes ecstatically happy life of Violetta, a Parisian courtesan who finds love and redemption through an innocent young man, Alfredo, before giving him up at the behest of his disapproving father, Giorgio Germont, and then dying of tuberculosis. The assumption of this role is a career milestone for any singer and Philippe Bezait’s documentary attempts to chart diva Natalie Dessay’s progress in it for a production in the Aix-en-Provence music festival in 2011, directed by Jean-François Sivadier.

The introduction above may be necessary to anyone unfamiliar with the work, as Bezait begins with the assumption that a synopsis is unnecessary, and also doesn’t bother to fully explain Sivadier’s sub-Brechtian concept, which would appear to be a rehearsal of a minimal production of the opera. However, unlike Brecht who loved to alienate his audience, Sivadier is fully committed to drawing out every possible human emotion from the text, sometimes going overboard, it would seem, as he gives minutely detailed instructions to his performers via gesture and facial expression, almost turning them into Svengali-style pawns.

This seems particularly unnecessary, as Dessay is one of the best actresses opera has ever known, particularly shining in comedy where her entrancing Doll in The Tales of Hoffman and Marie in La fille du regiment catapulted her to stardom. Yet this most intelligent and human of singers puts herself wholly into Sivadier’s hands, fully absorbing both his good and bad ideas. And, it must be admitted, there is a plethora of the latter: singing her first aria to an imaginary Alfredo; having to share traditionally solo, important moments with extras busily doing business around her; too much physical intimacy between Violetta and Giorgio during what should be a devastatingly stern encounter; Alfredo furiously stuffing money into her décolletage during her humiliation scene, having her maid remove her wig and make her up for her death scene.

Sivadier’s hamhandedness is often matched by Bezait’s, who foolishly focuses on Sivadier’s face watching Dessay and handsome tenor Charles Castronovo (as Alfredo) sing their first duet, when we long to see them instead. Bezait spends an inordinate amount of time over the opera’s opening moments, neglecting to focus on other telling points, like Violetta’s great aria of renunciation “Addio del passato,” and coverage of the rest of the opera seems highly rushed and cursory. Bezait is cornily fond of seeing performers falling, hence all the montages of Violetta crumbling to the ground, first in Alfredo’s arms and, at the end, in endlessly repeated variations of her death swoon which have a risible, not tragic, effect.

If anyone actually “becomes” Traviata here, it appears to be Sivadier, not Dessay, who never once is interviewed about her own opinion of and approach to the role. To rob the film of her charismatic, naturally funny personality seems particularly criminal: The most she is allowed is an observation about fearing she’ll come across as more of a cow than a beautiful seagull (when Sivadier evokes Chekhov at one point) and her nervousness about singing the technically challenging, repeated word gioir (joy) in the aria Sempre libera. (“Not for the girl singing it,” she tells Sivadier when he observes that this is an “orgasmic moment.”)

It’s been said that to sing the fiendishly difficult Violetta, you need three voices: a high, brilliant (coloratura) voice for Act I, a more lyric sound for Act II, and a strongly dramatic voice for the end. It’s ridiculous that we don’t get to hear the singer’s take on this, and this viewer admits to completely losing patience when, during the film’s climactic moments, Bezait chose to focus on a comely young female assistant music director explaining the opera, when access to Dessay and the other singers must have been available.

It’s fortunate that the talent of Dessay and Castronovo manages to poke through Becoming Traviata, with the camera boring relentlessly in on them during the most intimate rehearsal moments. They are completely exposed, both physically and vocally (with only piano accompaniment), yet Dessay in particular does give you a definite idea of the poignancy and beauty of her Violetta, even when her voice cracks or even disappears altogether under the strain.


Film Review: Becoming Traviata

A clumsy and sadly missed opportunity to capture the creation of a great opera role by a great singer.

May 16, 2013

-By David Noh


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1377478-Becoming_Traviata_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Verdi’s La Traviata is one of the greatest—some say the greatest—roles for a soprano in all opera. Adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux camelias (aka Camille), it limns the short, tragic but sometimes ecstatically happy life of Violetta, a Parisian courtesan who finds love and redemption through an innocent young man, Alfredo, before giving him up at the behest of his disapproving father, Giorgio Germont, and then dying of tuberculosis. The assumption of this role is a career milestone for any singer and Philippe Bezait’s documentary attempts to chart diva Natalie Dessay’s progress in it for a production in the Aix-en-Provence music festival in 2011, directed by Jean-François Sivadier.

The introduction above may be necessary to anyone unfamiliar with the work, as Bezait begins with the assumption that a synopsis is unnecessary, and also doesn’t bother to fully explain Sivadier’s sub-Brechtian concept, which would appear to be a rehearsal of a minimal production of the opera. However, unlike Brecht who loved to alienate his audience, Sivadier is fully committed to drawing out every possible human emotion from the text, sometimes going overboard, it would seem, as he gives minutely detailed instructions to his performers via gesture and facial expression, almost turning them into Svengali-style pawns.

This seems particularly unnecessary, as Dessay is one of the best actresses opera has ever known, particularly shining in comedy where her entrancing Doll in The Tales of Hoffman and Marie in La fille du regiment catapulted her to stardom. Yet this most intelligent and human of singers puts herself wholly into Sivadier’s hands, fully absorbing both his good and bad ideas. And, it must be admitted, there is a plethora of the latter: singing her first aria to an imaginary Alfredo; having to share traditionally solo, important moments with extras busily doing business around her; too much physical intimacy between Violetta and Giorgio during what should be a devastatingly stern encounter; Alfredo furiously stuffing money into her décolletage during her humiliation scene, having her maid remove her wig and make her up for her death scene.

Sivadier’s hamhandedness is often matched by Bezait’s, who foolishly focuses on Sivadier’s face watching Dessay and handsome tenor Charles Castronovo (as Alfredo) sing their first duet, when we long to see them instead. Bezait spends an inordinate amount of time over the opera’s opening moments, neglecting to focus on other telling points, like Violetta’s great aria of renunciation “Addio del passato,” and coverage of the rest of the opera seems highly rushed and cursory. Bezait is cornily fond of seeing performers falling, hence all the montages of Violetta crumbling to the ground, first in Alfredo’s arms and, at the end, in endlessly repeated variations of her death swoon which have a risible, not tragic, effect.

If anyone actually “becomes” Traviata here, it appears to be Sivadier, not Dessay, who never once is interviewed about her own opinion of and approach to the role. To rob the film of her charismatic, naturally funny personality seems particularly criminal: The most she is allowed is an observation about fearing she’ll come across as more of a cow than a beautiful seagull (when Sivadier evokes Chekhov at one point) and her nervousness about singing the technically challenging, repeated word gioir (joy) in the aria Sempre libera. (“Not for the girl singing it,” she tells Sivadier when he observes that this is an “orgasmic moment.”)

It’s been said that to sing the fiendishly difficult Violetta, you need three voices: a high, brilliant (coloratura) voice for Act I, a more lyric sound for Act II, and a strongly dramatic voice for the end. It’s ridiculous that we don’t get to hear the singer’s take on this, and this viewer admits to completely losing patience when, during the film’s climactic moments, Bezait chose to focus on a comely young female assistant music director explaining the opera, when access to Dessay and the other singers must have been available.

It’s fortunate that the talent of Dessay and Castronovo manages to poke through Becoming Traviata, with the camera boring relentlessly in on them during the most intimate rehearsal moments. They are completely exposed, both physically and vocally (with only piano accompaniment), yet Dessay in particular does give you a definite idea of the poignancy and beauty of her Violetta, even when her voice cracks or even disappears altogether under the strain.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Laggies
Film Review: Laggies

Disappointing comedic entry about a late-20s slacker who won’t grow up is writer/filmmaker Lynn Shelton’s first outing directing someone else’s material. Points here for strong cast and an occasional chuckle, but otherwise there’s just no point. More »

Rudderless
Film Review: Rudderless

Well-done indie drama about a lost-soul house painter reborn through rock ’n’ roll is a nice actor’s showcase for star Billy Crudup and an impressive directorial debut for actor William H. Macy. But in spite of some good work onscreen, both hero and story lack the edge and originality to carry this drama beyond respectability. More »

Camp X-Ray
Film Review: Camp X-Ray

Army guard and Guantanamo detainee form a grudging relationship in a thoughtful but far-fetched drama. More »

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Film Review: The Tale of The Princess Kaguya

As charming as it is delicate, this unusually low-key, if a tad overlong, animated feature brings yet more prestige to the famed Ghibli output. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Fury Review
Film Review: Fury

American tanks fight superior German forces in the closing days of World War II. More »

Birdman
Film Review: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Virtuosic camerawork and a stellar ensemble of actors more than make up for the occasional moment of portentous twaddle in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's latest—and maybe his best—film. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here