Monday, May 13, 2013

Becoming Traviata: Break a Leg

Verdi’s La Traviata was based on the same Dumas novel that inspired the classic Greta Garbo weeper Camille.  It is your basic story of love, loss, and tuberculosis.  Fortunately, it is a pretty easy narrative to pick-up, because there are no talking head experts or voice-over narrators to lay it out for viewers in Philippe Béziat’s behind-the-scenes documentary Becoming Traviata (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

Jean-François Sivadier’s staging of La Traviata for the Aix-en-Provence Festival is to be a stripped-down, minimalist production.  His cast, led by Natalie Dessay, will be out there, very much exposed.  A stage actor in his own right, Sivadier clearly understands the challenges.  He will guide them through what might be considered a method actor’s La Traviata.

Not to belabor the obvious, but this is a film very much intended for opera lovers.  Neither Béziat or Sivadier will take time out to explain why the Verdi opera is so timeless and enduring.  You really should already get that coming in.  Likewise, few uninterrupted performances are shown in their entirety.  Instead, Béziat shows how scenes evolve throughout the rehearsal process.

Dessay is enormously talented, but Sivadier is the true star of Becoming, because Béziat doc is more about directing than singing.  The audience will come to understand how he shapes every bit of business on stage, refining every aspect of the performances.  To an extent, Béziat also shows conductor Louis Langrée working with the accompanying London Symphony Orchestra in a similar manner.  Granted, this is definitely the equivalent of inside-baseball for those not deeply steeped in the opera world.  However, for aspiring stage directors (musical or otherwise) it should be fascinating stuff.  The music is pretty good too.

These are cinematic salad days for opera fans, with Becoming hitting screens shortly after the frothy comedy of 1st Night.  This is a much better film, but it is also somewhat less accessible to general audiences.  An underserved market, Opera fans have not had this kind of look under the hood since Susan Froemke’s Wagner’s Dream (which frankly was a more dramatic film, largely because it documented a production built around a huge set piece that did not always work).  Easily recommended for Opera listeners and those fascinated by backstage nut-sand-bolts, Becoming Traviata opens this Wednesday (5/15) in New York at Film Forum.