Becoming Traviata, Philippe Béziat’s documentary on the rehearsals for a 2011 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, is more dependent on its editing than anything else that allows it to rise above merely being a making-of featurette. Béziat understands this, and in interviews has rightly credited his longtime editor, Cyril Leuthy, for helping him select the richest footage from the over 90 hours he and his cameraman recorded for the film. The result is a lively tour of the production’s rehearsal space, where, along with the show’s tenor, Charles Castronovo, its baritone, Ludovic Tézier, and its orchestra and conductor, Louis Langree, internationally renowned soprano Natalie Dessay and theater director Jean-François Sivadier can be seen working closely on their own unique version of what’s possibly the most performed opera in history.
Watching the jazziness of how Sivadier and Dessay interact, his darting eyes observing every aspect of her vigorous performance-in-training, is never sober or programmatic. In this sense, Becoming Traviata works as a reminder of the important interactiveness of the performing arts, of actors evoking the drama, action, and emotion that computers and machines cannot. Although we never see the final performance, there are a handful of scenes where the film’s audio switches to that of the final production’s, creating a counterpoint that contrasts rehearsal and result. One doesn’t need to have ever seen an opera to appreciate the documentary as a fluid, sometimes beautiful, collection of skillful movements, gestures, expressions, voices, sounds, and emotions. In its final scene, which mirrors the ending of the opera, Dessay, now rehearsing on stage with chandeliers and nature backdrops, practices falling down dead (the title of the opera literally means The Fallen Woman, and Béziat equates its terminally ill main character to Mizoguchi’s heroines), and through the repetition of seeing her practice this moment of dramatic collapse, you may gain, in some small way, a richer appreciation for life.