Philippe Béziat’s “Becoming Traviata” isn’t just a documentary about the staging of Verdi’s “La traviata” at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France in summer 2011. Like Wim Wenders’s Pina Bausch tribute, “Pina,” it’s a work of art. Stage director Jean-François Sivadier, conductor Louis Langrée, and renowned coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay — none of them identified till the closing credits — don’t explain what they’re doing, they simply do it. But because we see the opera being rehearsed from beginning to end, and because we hear the famous arias, you can follow the story even if you’re unfamiliar with the opera — though a five-minute brush-up on the plot wouldn’t hurt.
The best parts of this engrossing film are the exchanges between Sivadier and Dessay, who sings the title role of Violetta. He’s intellectual in his approach; he tells her to think about “È strano” (“It’s strange”) in the abstract, and when at one point he talks about different ways to sing “gioir” (“joy”), she answers, “What does that mean?” He moves her around like a choreographer with a prima ballerina; in the first act, after Charles Castronovo’s Alfredo has professed his love and left, Sivadier has Dessay raise her left hand as if to say, “No one’s here. I’m going to kiss him anyway.” At times it seems Dessay just wants to cut loose and do things her way, but she listens and incorporates Sivadier’s suggestions into her very detailed performance. There are lighthearted moments as well: In the last act, when she’s lying on the floor, he says, “Show me something — let’s see if we have the same idea,” whereupon she bursts out laughing.
What “Becoming Traviata” doesn’t provide is much sense of what this “Traviata” became, since we don’t see the finished product, and stage designer Alexandre de Dardel’s updated concept is only hinted at. There’s also nothing about how Dessay, who sang Violetta for Santa Fe Opera in 2009 and last year at the Metropolitan Opera, approached a role that many feel is too big for her voice. The film just goes from one illuminating detail to another: Langrée asking the London Symphony Orchestra strings to cry along with Alfredo’s father (Ludovic Tézier); Sivadier being invited to pick up the baton for a moment, something he’s obviously dying to do; Dessay practicing Violetta’s final collapse over the closing credits.
“Becoming Traviata” might make you feel you’ve seen Verdi’s opera, or it might make you want to see it. The Aix-en-Provence production, as it happens, is available on DVD.