by Jason Victor Serinus
When is an opera film not a film of an opera? When it's Becoming Traviata. By the time you've finished watching Philippe Beziat's documentary of sorts, which opens at Opera Plaza Cinema (SF) and Shattuck Cinemas (Berkeley) on Friday, June 14, you may be convinced that soprano Natalie Dessay is opera's greatest singing actress, Jean-Francois Sivadier its most no-thought-left-unexamined director, and Louis Langree among its most perceptive conductors. But unless you're familiar with Verdi's opera La Traviata, you'll come away with but a rudimentary understanding of what transpires onstage, and how glorious the opera's music can sound.
Becoming Traviata is about process: the process of Dessay, aided by Sivadier's vision, becoming the doomed Violetta as she tries on and eventually inhabits her character. In scene after scene, the movie seamlessly blends piano rehearsal, stage rehearsal, dress rehearsal, and actual performance as it follows Dessay, virtually stalked by Sivadier, from initial conceptualization to final assumption. In the process, we also hear from Alfredo (Violetta's suitor), handsome former Adler Fellow Charles Castronovo; his father (Giorgio Germont), Ludovic Tezier; and other principals, chorus members, piano coach, and backstage crew. But it's basically Dessay and Sivadier's show.
It certainly isn't Verdi's. Although his music is everywhere in evidence, most clearly when Langree coaches his players in how to bring out the underlying emotion in certain passages, only parts of the opera get an airing. Worse, the stars often sing at half-voice, frequently dropping an octave or singing softly. Dessay may confess that, when it comes to the demanding coloratura of Act I's great showpiece, "Sempre libera" ("Always free"), she'd rather stall by talking about the scene than actually sing it, but just when we hope that she'll break free of Beziat's script and perform the damn aria, we're on to the next scene.
By documentary's end, everyone who has stuck through all 113 minutes will have no question that Dessay is an inspired actress whom Sivadier adores. In fact, the only question that may arise about Sivadier is whether he is so consumed by the opera that he continues to follow his artists and characters around in his sleep. But some opera virgins are only going to stick around if they are so okay with not being told what La Traviata is about that they can figuratively as well as literally watch it in the dark.
Even to seasoned operagoers, Béziat's stop-and-go approach can be frustrating. Opera queens aware of negative reviews of Dessay's 2012 Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, where she was reportedly under vocal duress, and mixed reviews of her more recent Julius Caesar, will want to know what shape she's in. We can sense some of the vocal problems in the documentary when her voice involuntarily stops, far more than once, during rehearsal. But short of watching the DVD of the culmination of these rehearsals, the actual 2011 outdoor performance in Aix-en-Provence (available on Virgin Classics), we are left hanging as to the vocal estate we will experience when Dessay takes to the stage of San Francisco Opera on June 5 as Antonia in a nine-performance run of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.
There's no question that opera-lovers will want to see this film for, if nothing else, Dessay's multiple, no-two-alike run-throughs of her final collapse from consumption. Her theatrical brilliance shines through every frame, far eclipsing anything we're allowed to see from the other principals. But those wishing to know and savor more will have no choice but to watch the Virgin DVD, head to SFO, or read the review of Tales of Hoffmann in these very pages.