sat 04/04/2020

DVD: Becoming Traviata | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Becoming Traviata

DVD: Becoming Traviata

Natalie Dessay is an intense Verdi heroine in oblique behind-the-scenes documentary

Director and soprano work out a move for Verdi's 'La traviata'

Only the most antagonistic of diva fanciers, opera queens, call them what you will, would deny coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay her place as one of the great singing actresses of our time. The size and range of the voice are rather more limited for the role of giant-hearted Violetta, Verdi’s Parisian courtesan who sacrifices true love on the altar of convention and dies of consumption.

Only the most antagonistic of diva fanciers, opera queens, call them what you will, would deny coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay her place as one of the great singing actresses of our time. The size and range of the voice are rather more limited for the role of giant-hearted Violetta, Verdi’s Parisian courtesan who sacrifices true love on the altar of convention and dies of consumption.

Not that it matters too much in film-maker Philippe Béziat’s take on the opera, originally Traviata et nous, in which he guides us through the drama chronologically but very selectively from rehearsal room to the open stage in the courtyard of the Aix-en-Provence summer theatre. The unique selling-point is silence.

First it’s the silence between the departure of Violetta’s party guests in Act One and the first thought of her soliloquy that Dessay and the opera’s director, soulful-eyed Jean-François Sivadier, spend about a quarter of an hour discussing in the most interesting work-in-progress sequence. She's a little frightening in her joky intensity; he just steers clear of pretentiousness, though bearing in mind the nature of what he wants, he does talk an awful lot.

Charles Castronovo and Natalie Dessay in Becoming TraviataLater come the silences that the film director uses to punctuate a stylized version of his dying heroine’s last half-hour (at the end of which the term "fallen woman" - traviata literally means "woman led astray" - takes on a whole new meaning). We’ve had scenes accompanied by, but not synchronized with, voices and full orchestra, or the orchestra alone, conducted by the springy, perceptive Louis Langrée; now the music stops for minutes on end.

The angle is unconventional, simply giving us what happens at any given moment without background or context; though the story’s fairly simple, newcomers won’t always understand the action. Frankly, we might all be better off with an hour-long behind-the-scenes documentary with interviews followed by a complete performance of the opera (available from a different DVD label). The closest the film comes to how it works is an impassioned demonstration of Violetta's anguished Act Two farewell to her lover Alfredo from a total star, the vivacious Italian repetiteur Roberta Ferrari.

Half the time our heroine marks – sings down the octave, as is common in rehearsals – while the most stylish singing comes from dreamily romantic American tenor Charles Castronovo (pictured above with Dessay) as her palpably younger lover. Still, Dessay and her director are charismatic enough to guide us through the relative shallows of this unique let’s-make-an-opera.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Becoming Traviata

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