Process trumps preening in Philippe Beziat’s Becoming Traviata, a calmly observant documentary about a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s celebrated opera La Traviata. If the staging planned by French opera director Jean-Francois Sivadier is pared down and seemingly without the opulence usually tied to the canonical 19th century work, then Beziat’s film is similarly concise. With a minimum of fuss he shoots the rehearsals from their meagre beginnings, inserting production chores as the company grows, and never lets us see the finished version. A shot of firemen checking the Aix-en-Provence venue as opening night patrons file in is as close as the film gets to a conventional finale.
in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman
Does the story need such a triumphant close? Not really. The point being made by the French filmmaker is that what matters is the creative structure the increasingly large company grow through. Opening night is just a reproduction and reaction to decisions and determinations made in the weeks prior. The real work happens in nondescript rooms where the production’s star, celebrated French soprano Natalie Dessay, discovers her character Violetta’s body language is in black leggings while Sivadier follows her around the room and mouths the lyrics as he intently develops the staging.
By not showing a completed opera, Becoming Traviata demystifies the high culture apparatus that fogs it in; when the London Symphony Orchestra are first sighted they look like a bunch of tourists just off the bus in t-shirts and tracksuit pants. There are no tantrums and talking heads, aside from an enthusiastic accompanist who briefly explains the complexities of a single line to illustrate the depth of the work and to stop her exploding with unfulfilled helpfulness. Sivadier is the smiling, effusive collaborator, shaping the physical expressiveness of the cast without becoming dictatorial as he gets down to the minutiae of arm movements.
As Beziat shoots from the back of the room, settling on individuals as they often wait to contribute or circulate with their own thoughts, the frame accumulates participants but remains modest. Sivadier never makes a comment about the singing, although there are others monitoring the cast’s voices, instead focusing on the acting and staging; he pays more attention to a pair of prop chairs than Dessay’s impeccable throat. She, in turn, is discovered to be more of a silent film star, reaching for an outward physical expressiveness that can penetrate to the back row and match the grand passion of Verdi’s work.
This is a documentary in the tradition of Frederick Wiseman, working as a kind of artistic procedural. It is illuminating, in differing ways you would imagine, both to opera buffs and novices. 'The night awaits, give yourself over to pleasure," conductor Louis Langree urges the chorus at one point, but what’s revealed is the hard, sometimes repetitive, work required to create a framework where the pleasure can appear to be carefree. The camera’s ability to capture that truth is never in doubt as the process unfolds.