Considering that opera is so much about grand spectacle, it's funny that we so rarely get to see the epic amount of work that goes on backstage.
That's what makes French documentary-maker Philippe Baziat's Becoming Traviata so amazing for arts lovers. The film offers an inside look at the excruciatingly meticulous creation process for a production of Guiseppe Verdi's famous tragedy. While doing so, it also becomes a luminous love letter to opera itself.
Rather than a by-the-book mix of interviews and rehearsal footage, Becoming Traviata is more of a meditative, fly-on-the-wall piece of visual poetry. The feel is similar to Frederick Wiseman's equally ravishing La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. We get lingering closeups of broken chandeliers lined up for repair backstage and racks of well-used paint brushes. Most impactful are the scenes featuring genius director Jean-Francois Sivadier silently walking the stage alone, lost in his own imagination, blocking out movement, and hearing the soaring arias in his own head.
The on-set action is just as mesmerizing, especially as we watch Sivadier work closely with star soprano Natalie Dessay to reimagine the doomed prostitute Violetta.Far from becoming repetitious, layered restagings of the same scene reveal the fascinating depth and emotional nuance that go into such a "big" art form. Just watch Sivadier during dress rehearsals. With Dessay suddenly punked out with electro-shock platinum hair and all-black clothing, he lurks right behind her, moving as she moves and trying to get her blocking perfect. It turns out to be, when we finally see it, a thoroughly cutting-edge staging of La Traviata.
Opera lovers will lose themselves in this lush and artfully shot world—and salivate over the outdoor Aix-en-Provence festival theatre where this top-level production will eventually play out. This is one ticket to the opera you're not soon to forget.