It's easy to think of opera as little more than an affected flock of singers warbling onstage in lacy brocade with pancake makeup, chandeliers and champagne.
But you won't see any of that in Philippe Béziat's artful new documentary Becoming Traviata, now making the rounds of U.S. film festivals and art houses. Instead, Béziat pulls back the curtain to reveal one very smart production of Verdi's La traviata, molded from the ground up by stage director Jean-François Sivadier for the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival.
For a film built almost completely from rehearsals on a bare stage, there's a surprising amount of drama — especially between Sivadier and his charismatic star, French soprano Natalie Dessay. Watching the two shape the lead character, Violetta (a free-wheeling courtesan who, despite her best intentions, falls in love), is something of a drama within a drama.
"I'm putting off doing it, maybe we can talk until 5:30," Dessay says with a nervous laugh, trying to stall as she and Sivadier discuss the emotional landscape of her big solo that closes Act 1. Dramatically and technically it's among the most feared 10 minutes in the soprano repertoire.
"It's exactly like 'To be or not to be,'" he tells her. "It's as hard as an actress saying: 'I am a seagull.' We sense you are vulnerable so we identify with you completely."
Dessay absorbs his instructions, sometimes with a skeptical glance. But as she starts the scene, she flips off her shoes, holds her head in her hands, staring at the floor, and begins to sing "È strano! è strano" (It's strange! It's strange.). She's totally believable.
And that's important, as this was Dessay's first time singing Traviata in Europe. She debuted the role in Santa Fe in 2009 with some operaphiles tut-tutting it was vocally at least a size too big for her slim yet expressive coloratura instrument. Rumors still persist that taking on roles like Violetta have caused Dessay to consider shortening her operatic career.
So how does her voice fare in Becoming Traviata? It's a hard to tell completely because she and some of the other soloists employ a common rehearsal practice called "marking," in which they hold back their full voices. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to hear the singers (including tenor Charles Castronovo and baritone Ludovic Tézier) switch gears between croon and full cry — just one more way this film insists on showing opera with its hair down.
One could argue that Becoming Traviata is a film for opera geeks. The long stretches of Sivadier explaining blocking, facial expressions and emotional underpinnings will fascinate some and fatigue others. And although much of Verdi's opera is rehearsed in the film, little of the plot is exposed, which could leave non-opera buffs wishing they had boned up beforehand.
Still, seeing the process unfold up close with a team of players — that in this case includes a stage director, soloists, orchestra, chorus and conductor Louis Langrée — is illuminating for anyone who must do creative work with others.
And there's an added benefit. By uncovering the backstage mechanics of staging an opera, Béziat's film continues the good fight to break down barriers between classical music and popular culture.
Then there's the opera itself, which is a perfect choice for Béziat's format. With La traviata, Verdi achieved something he'd never attempted before: writing about real, everyday people with everyday problems set in contemporary times (although he was forced by the censors to set the premiere circa 1700). In Traviata there are family squabbles to be sorted out, bills to be paid and love that is honest, hard won and ultimately lost.
Verdi wanted the audience members to see themselves in the characters onstage. And something similar happens in Becoming Traviata. Watching Béziat's film, which in French is titled Traviata et nous (Traviata and Us), we come a little closer to seeing ourselves, backstage, struggling to bring our own realities to life.