05/27/2013 11:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Becoming Traviata

What does it take to become Traviata, one of opera's most famous heroines? A lot of rehearsals. A French documentary shows the making of Traviata at the festival at Aix-en-Provence in 2011. Based on Alexandre Dumas' play La Dame Aux Camelias, the opera is a standard in almost any opera house and the protagonist, Violetta, is the high point of a coloratura soprano's career. While those facts seem to indicate a very promising documentary film, the result falls short of expectation.

This is not director Philippe Béziat's first foray into opera; he has previously made several documentaries about works such as Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (2008) and Stravinsky's Nose (2012). It is clear that he has as much of a passion for Traviata as perhaps the stage director, Jean-François Sivadier, himself. However, painstakingly following Sivadier and leading lady Natalie Dessay throughout their rehearsals looks as tedious as it probably was, and even if that process had been built up better, the audience would have been let down anyway because there was almost no footage of the actual performance. Perhaps there had been issues about rights for using the actual performance in the film, but focusing the whole film almost exclusively on rehearsal footage does not really make for a compelling story. Béziat also inexplicably ignores Dessay outside of the rehearsals. One of opera's greatest names, what she thinks and feels about her role would seem like an obvious thing to include in the film. Instead, Béziat shows a rehearsal pianist enthusiastically but pedantically explaining the drama of the music.

Too much of the focus is on Sivadier's intent face, and too little on what Traviata really is - a Parisian courtesan who finds ideal love and redemption with a young man, but then is forced to give all that up when the young man's father pressures her to sacrifice her love for the happiness of his family. From wild parties to pure love to a lonely death from consumption, Traviata is about a woman's life, intensely lived. Béziat does not even bother to go through the synopsis of Verdi's opera, assuming that the viewer knows it well enough to understand and appreciate Sivadier's fixation on some moments and words.

While there is a certain elegance and delicacy in Béziat's work, the chief attraction of the film is, of course, the soprano herself. At the age of 48, she can still play an ingénue on stage and dance better than any other singer. Her performances are acclaimed almost as much as for her vocal skills as her lithe acting and charm, and for fans of the coloratura, the film is full of precious moments of Dessay being Dessay. She isn't an ethereally perfect, polished prima donna a la Renee Fleming; she is natural, real and inimitable. Appearing before the cameras barefoot and dressed as if going to yoga class, she does not seem concerned about revealing the melanic root of her blond hair, the lack of makeup on her middle-aged face or the presence of Béziat's cameras. We only wish we could be similarly oblivious.

Below is a clip - not from the film, but a live broadcast of the film on Arte.