Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera about courtesans, counts and carnal longings has been performed thousands of times; when French director Jean-François Sivadier decided to tackle La Traviata for the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival, however, his goal was to do something sui generis. Less was more, in Sivadier’s mind, so gone were the opulent pageantry of past renditions, replaced by moody, minimalist sets dotted by clouds. He also hired the famed coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay to sing the role of Violetta, as well as a talented cast (including swoonworthy Charles Castronovo, playing the smitten Alfredo) and crew for what would be a stellar production. But if Philippe Béziat’s documentary is any indication, this La Traviata boils down to one rip-it-all-apart visionary, his muse and an attempt to form a mind-melding bond.
Observational glimpses of artists at work are fascinating unto themselves, and to be fair, the most compelling scenes of Béziat’s curtain-pulling chronicle are those of Sivadier and Dessay brainstorming through philosophical motivations, vocal inflections, etc. The best behind-the-scenes portraits emphasize the creative labor that goes into “effortless” performances (think Carlos Saura's Blood Wedding or Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse), and the opera director’s blood-sweat-and-tears duet with his lead almost makes up for the lack of contextual cause-and-effect and the skimping on concert footage. Those unfamiliar with Verdi’s tragedy won’t understand why this production was significant, nor see much of the fruits of such hard work; those onstage may become La Traviata’s tragic characters, but it’s tough not to feel that we, the audience, leave only half-transformed.
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