French soprano Natalie Dessay's utter dedication to her stagecraft is illuminated in the documentary "Becoming Traviata," which follows her through rehearsals as she prepared for her first Violetta, the tragic heroine of Verdi's "La Traviata."
Philippe Béziat's film is an exceptional record of the daily grind and the ups and downs of the learning process as Dessay — a world-renowned artist currently appearing in San Francisco Opera's "The Tales of Hoffmann" — was getting ready for the Aix en Provence Festival production in 2011.
Working with Dessay, soloists and chorus, stage director Jean-François Sivadier and musical director Louis Langrée hold nothing back. Complete with bloopers, missteps, wrong notes and awkward movements, the film is an honest depiction of what went on behind the scenes.
It also provides insight into the creative process, offering parallel development of the rehearsals and the story in the opera — a stroke of genius.
Dessay's transformation from a cheerful artist into the vulnerable, tragic character who gives up love (and perishes) for the sake of complying with society's prudish demands is as emotional an experience as the opera itself.
The performers appear in gym apparel and rehearse on a bare stage, with minimal props. Nothing detracts from the persistent close-ups on Dessay and her fellow cast members, including Charles Castronovo (an alummus of the San Francisco Opera's Merola program) as Alfredo.
Interestingly, the film follows the entire opera through rehearsals, but reveals very little about the actual production, or the "finished product." Yet for viewers, the unfinished opera in the film, presented without sets or costumes, has an impact equal to that of seeing a live performance.
With Natalie Dessay, Jean-François Sivadier, Louis Langrée, Charles Castronovo
Directed by Philippe Béziat
Running time 1 hour, 53 minutes
Note: Dessay will appear in person at screenings at 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F.