By Jacob Mertens.
A couple years ago, I traveled to England for an internship and decided that so long as I was on that side of the ocean, I would go ahead and see Malta, Italy, and France as well. I remember stepping off the train into Rome and stumbling my way through the streets, mystified and quite alone. The grandeur of the city took me by surprise—towering buildings left from an empire, worn down temples still trying to honor old Gods—and as I walked past an opera house I could hear the faint rumbling of a woman’s voice seep into the air like the wail of a ghost. In that moment I felt the surreal edge of my life, standing in a strange country surrounded by a history I could just dimly understand. The disembodied voice of the opera singer resonated with me, and I let this trembling sound speak to my awe and isolation.
At its best, opera gives emotion to a feeling beyond words. Even if an audience understands the language of a performance, or if they read subtitles at the top banner of a stage, the high trills and booming force of a voice can take words beyond the limitations of speech, abstracting them to the point of auditory poetry. And yet, there are stories lying beneath these abstractions, typically tragic tales that become distanced by the raw power of the vocals. Philippe Béziat’s Becoming Traviata documents the rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera La Traviata, refitted as a modern retelling much in line with the legend of Orson Welles’ theatrical makeover of Julius Ceaser (or any number of recent revisionists), and beyond its illumination of a fascinating rehearsal process, the film excels at recontextualizing La Traviata‘s story, bringing the narrative to the foreground in an arresting way.
While one might think the modern telling would be responsible for casting the story in a new light, Becoming Traviata makes better use of half-mad stage directions from Jean-Francois Sivadier, a man whose mind clearly hums at a different frequency than the rest of his cast. The performances start and stop in an almost syncopated rhythm, with Sivadier interrupting on the downbeats of musical numbers, jumping onto the stage like a child and talking of a character’s mental state as if he were writing prose. In other words, Sivadier articulates directions as if they were meant as a natural accompaniment to his vivid stagings, and if this impulse is partially born out of a need to play to the camera, so be it. His impromptu monologues do not feel forced, they feel liberating, and the clear passion displayed by Sivadier and his principal cast, most notably the lauded coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay in the lead role of Violetta, elevates the heartache and despair of La Traviata through a pursuit of artistry.
In a telling scene, Dessay struggles with a specific direction from Sivadier and forces a protracted conversation. She admits mid-way through that the longer she can keep him talking, the better the chance she can reach the end of rehearsal and avoid having to enact his suggestion. Sivadier simply smiles and says that it’s fine, that talking is a good thing. The man never really differentiates between his stage directions and a performance, he treats each as the different side of a coin. However, as the film goes on, his words become less and less vital as the feeling of the characters become more pronounced in the performance and require less reinforcement. This change is what the film’s title refers to, the creative process leading to the bleeding soul of a story.
The narrative itself is shown in fragments—a young man and woman in love torn apart by fate, the woman dying of consumption as the man struggles to return to her—and the camera follows these rehearsals in typical art cinema “fly on the wall” fashion, observing without ever interceding, allowing the film to unfold without instigation. Meanwhile, the environment transitions from a drab rehearsal studio to a stage with lights and massive backdrops showing clumps of white, full-bodied clouds drifting weightless in a cool blue sky. When Violetta sings of heartache here, she truly sings to no one, simply an auditorium of empty seats, and the loneliness is palpable.
The journey to this moment feels tangible and concrete for Dessay’s discovery of her character’s distress. The audience does not watch the film to let the opera itself tell them why Violetta is a tragic figure, they see it in the singer’s transformation and they piece it together through information gleaned from each fractured song. Somehow, the process of discovery and the intimacy found with the stage director and his cast gives La Traviata new life. And beyond the beautiful vocal contortions of the singers, the story remains at the core of it all, a steadying foundation from which Dessay can sing to the heavens.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.