Film Review: Becoming Traviata

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

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.