Directed by Philippe Bézait
Rehearsals, as a rule, are tedious to watch. Meryl Streep gave a superb performance as Mother Courage in Central Park in 2006, but you would never know that if you watched Theater of War, a 2008 documentary that eavesdropped on her process. Most rehearsals are formless, awkward, consistently falling into a state of inertia. You’d think that observing rehearsals of an opera might at least provide some welcome glimpses of old-school pique and fits of temperament, but in Philippe Béziat’s Becoming Traviata, which documents the coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay rehearsing for a production of Verdi’s La Traviata under the direction of Jean-Francois Sivadier, very little happens. Béziat records the rehearsals in a languorous, uninflected way, and he offers practically no context at all for previous productions of this opera or what this one might be trying to achieve.
Sivadier stages La Traviata in a minimalist fashion, so the snatches we see of the actual production don’t look or feel very different from what we see in the rehearsal room. Dessay offered a magnificently unhinged Lucia de Lammermoor in the Met's 2007-08 season, and she is certainly one of the most exciting opera singers of her time, always ready to make bold choices and push her voice to its maximum level. (She has had vocal trouble in the past and is planning to take a break from singing in 2015.) In Becoming Traviata, however, she comes across as self-effacing, mousy, even a little dorky, and this revelation will do her no good if she hopes to cultivate any kind of diva mystique.
As Becoming Traviata aimlessly plods forward with interminable scenes of various stages of rehearsal, it’s hard not to wonder why someone didn’t just film the production itself. Whatever it might be like (I haven’t seen it), showing the way it was created isn't just unenlightening—it's unfair to whatever the result might have been, like watching a magician practicing a routine over and over again in his or her bedroom.
Opens May 15