Movie review: Becoming Traviata

By Peter Calder

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Opera singer Natalie Dessay as Violetta is conscientious if occasionally too camera-conscious.
Opera singer Natalie Dessay as Violetta is conscientious if occasionally too camera-conscious.

It lacks the wow factor that distinguishes the very best observational documentaries, but this chronicle of preparations for a production of the most-performed of Verdi's operas makes for a very engrossing watch.

The 2011 open-air production for the Aix-en-Provence festival, which featured Natalie Dessay as Violetta and Charles Castronovo as Alfredo seems to have attracted only moderately enthusiastic reviews. But as its title suggests, this is a film about the rehearsal, not the performance. Director (of the opera, not the film) Jean-Francois Sivadier is seen working intensively with his principals, in particularly Dessay (a conscientious if occasionally too camera-conscious professional) as they build the character of the doomed and lovestruck courtesan.

It is fascinating to watch action and music develop in tandem - all these musicians and performers, of course, arrive at the first rehearsal knowing their parts inside out so rehearsal is a process of refinement. The slow emergence of the director's and musical director's conceptions is interwoven with little sidebar discussions: the repetiteur rhapsodises about Verdi; the set designer and director get together.

Meanwhile close-ups of set-builders' workshops create beautiful still lifes.

Most rewardingly, Beziat does not build up to a glorious opening night. The final shot shows a physical trainer teaching Dessay how to faint while stage hands sweep the floor. Hard work 1; glamour nil.

Stars: 3.5/5
Director: Philippe Beziat
Running time: 120 mins
Rating: PG (coarse language). In French and Italian with English subtitles
Verdict: Engrossing

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