Making the Sausage, by David Bax
Being a medium that exists in the fourth dimension, cinema is particularly well-suited to detailing process. Philippe Béziat’s Becoming Traviata details the process of rehearsing a production of Verdi’s Traviata. It does more than that, though. In focusing on the energy, commitment and passion of individual human beings, the film not only shows us how an opera staging is assembled but how it is art.
Béziat focuses almost exclusively on the production’s director, Jean-François Sivadier, and its star, Natalie Dessay. We see their rehearsals at various points in their progress, going from Dessay in a studio wearing gym clothes to her in full costume on the stage while the lighting design is still being discussed and then back again. We never see the completed, public performance in any way. The journey trumps the destination for Béziat’s purposes.
Were Traviata a movie (I mean, it is, but not this one), this is the kind of making-of documentary that would appear on the Blu-ray’s special features. By separating us from the end result, Béziat prevents us from viewing the film from a superficial, how-are-the-sausages-made perspective. It helps that Traviata contains a great deal of beautiful music sung by performers with nearly superhuman vocal capabilities (Dessay provided the singing voice of Diane Kruger’s character in Joyeux Noel). I shouldn’t have to recommend that you watch this movie with the volume way up since you should be doing that with every move already, whenever possible, but Verdi, Dessay and the other actors deserve some sort of special award for sound design.
Generally, it feels incorrect to say that someone “stars” in a documentary. But Dessay’s achievements feel like the announcement of a great talent. Her determination to get the voice, the choreography and the character right is inspiring and endearing. She is eager to collaborate without being too willing to compromise. She is hard on herself in a way that comes across as sincere but self-deprecating, never self-centered. I am prepare now to watch Natalie Dessay in just about anything.
If Sivadier comes across as less winning, it’s only because he’s standing next to his star. His dedication illustrates one of Béziat’s most important points, that being the person who interprets one artist’s work through that of another is still an art of its own. Sivadier dances and sings and gestures along with Dessay, sometimes miming her and sometimes filling in for an absent costar.
One of the most striking depictions of director/actor collaboration in Becoming Traviata contains no proper rehearsal whatsoever. It’s just a few minutes where Sivadier and Dessay are sitting in chairs and talking about the play. It’s powerful stuff and it allows us to see that art is not just the finished product but the process of creating it as well.