Becoming Traviata (Traviata et nous), the 2012 documentary by Philippe Béziat that plays at New York’s Film Forum May 15 – 28, is a gripping and intelligent look at Verdi’s 1854 melodramma and at the process by which director Jean-François Sivadier, conductor Louis Langrée, and their beautiful cast brought it to life at the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival. (The Aix production in its entirety is available on a Virgin Classics DVD that I recommend warmly.)
In all honesty, I went to Becoming Traviata with considerable wariness in light of the Metropolitan Opera’s bleakly cynical infomercial plugging Robert Lepage’s production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. But Béziat’s film bowled me over. As we know from the Met’s “Live in HD” transmissions, the up-close-and-personal and larger-than-life scale of opera at the cinema offers unique thrills. And there is so much to relish in Becoming Traviata: the look in Natalie Dessay’s huge, glazed, seawater-green eyes when Alfredo’s voice breaks into “Sempre libera”; the way that the Germont of Ludovic Tézier (hubba-hubba) caresses Violetta’s face, lingering just one slimy second too long; how Charles Castronovo’s Alfredo, frantic with desire, clutches Violetta and buries his face in her skirts after throwing bills into her face and stuffing them down her bodice.
(Incidentally, as Don Ottavio in the Met’s Don Giovanni, Castronovo turned in possibly the most patrician and deeply musical singing I heard all this past season. In Becoming Traviata he is a hunky, irresistible puppy of an Alfredo, memorably presenting a shaggy clump of wildflowers to Dessay’s streetwise Violetta. If Castronovo continues to choose his roles wisely and to sing within his means, he will be a major artist—and I do mean “artist” and not just “tenor.”)
Becoming Traviata shows Sivadier, Langrée, and their cast really digging into the smallest details of Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s masterwork. In Act I, when the guests burst into Violetta’s party, Langrée reminds his choristers that Flora is named after the goddess of flowers, so he asks them to sing her name “with perfume.” Sivadier and Dessay together explore the void that Verdi placed between the hectic, noisy exit of the revellers later in Act I and Violetta’s murmured È strano: It is “a desert,” the director observes, and Violetta in that moment stands “on the edge of nothingness.”Langrée’s conducting is electrifying throughout, and what fire and agitation he brings out in Verdi’s orchestral writing where the dull and benighted hear only rum-te-tum. “Be nasty,” he exhorts the cellos as they rehearse the buildup to Violetta and Alfredo’s confrontation at Flora’s soirée. When Violetta sings Addio, del passato (performed correctly with both verses—Violetta is a Parisian, so Verdi logically wrote couplets for her), wisps and scraps of gold leaf flutter across the stage. They are a reminder of the superficial glitter of Violetta’s life as a prostitute; and like the discarded blossoms and billets-doux that are trampled at the end of the ballroom sequence in Luchino Visconti’s Il gattopardo, they also tell of mortality and evanescence. (Visconti’s film famously includes a waltz by Verdi and music from La traviata, and Burt Lancaster’s Don Fabrizio was modelled on a portrait of Verdi.)
For all the film’s wonderful qualities, Béziat’s remarks on La traviata (given in a press handout) reflect a certain naïveté about some of opera’s uncomfortable realities. “…[Verdi] seemed to have but one goal: to bring onto the theater stage the spark of life, the magic of words. When you delve into one of his scores, you see the way the notes stick to the words, the way speech brings about music.”
All well and good, but critics have long noted the tendency of words and music in opera to follow their own wayward trajectories, the classic case being Orphée’s “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.” Gluck’s melody is equally suited to a very different sentiment: J’ai trouvé mon Eurydice. Rien n’égale mon bonheur ! What’s more, at least in France, Verdi expected that his works would be performed in the vernacular, which entailed all manner of retrofitting: Prosody and meter differ radically in Italian and in French. And in general, the question of who’s in charge in opera, la musica or la parola, is the form’s deepest and most abiding anxiety.Béziat further opines, “There is no need… for a great crinoline, twenty-five fireplaces, fourteen chandeliers, and flowing champagne.” Yet when Violetta attacks “Sempre libera,” Dessay and Sivadier fall back on the moldiest of all Traviata clichés: brandishing a bottle of booze. And a “timeless” treatment of Violetta’s drama can overlook what was once most startling about the opera. In the early 1850s, La traviata was “ripped from the headlines,” a story of raw immediacy. By one account, Violetta was the first operatic character to die of a real, identified disease (“La tisi non le accorda che poche ore”), one then raging in Paris and other urban centers.
To Verdi and Piave’s exasperation, censors insisted that the action be moved back to the time of Richelieu, but no one was fooled. In The Sounds of Paris in Verdi’s “La traviata,” a must read for all Verdians, Emilio Sala examines how the music of the Parisian boulevard theatres and the then-racy waltz saturate Verdi’s score, further amplifying the story’s bleeding-edge punch for the composer’s contemporaries. And one of Verdi’s colleagues described La traviata, even in bowdlerized form, as “a real musical and social revolution.”
But that was then. Nowadays waltzes are tame and kitschy, most everyone has seen Camille and La Dame aux Camélias (Bernhardt, Huppert), and La traviata is the most frequently performed opera in the world. It can probably never be as gritty for us as it was for Verdi’s peers.
In his critique of Wagner, Theodor Adorno decried the composer’s fondness for characters presented as “universal symbols” bound up with “the standing-still of time” and with escape into spurious realms outside of history and of politics. It is strange, even gruesome, to think of Violetta and Verdi in similar terms. But perhaps Sivadier chose to craft a contemporary-dress Traviata, with raves and graffiti and exposed-brick walls, in part to sidestep such dangers. Certainly his splendid cast, conductor Langrée, and film director Béziat offer a searing and riveting vision of Verdi’s “poor sinner,” her unqualified surrender to love, and the cruel and bitter end to which her society condemns her.