'Becoming Traviata' Is a Journey to Transcendence

Matthew Wollin

Becoming Traviata renders the opera’s production operatic without succumbing to the overwhelming artifice that can make opera feel anachronistic in the age of reality entertainment.

Becoming Traviata (Traviata et nous)

Director: Philippe Béziat
Cast: Natalie Dessay, Jean-François Sivadier, Louis Langrée, Charles Castronovo
Rated: NR
Studio: Distrib Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2013-05-15 (Limited release)

At first glance, Becoming Traviata (Traviata et nous) is chronicling the rehearsals leading up to the 2011 Aix-en-Provence festival production of Verdi’s La Traviata. But the documentary does something else, too, as director Philippe Béziat uses the opera’s structure to inform that of his film, dividing it into three acts that correspond with those of the opera. Doling out bits of the opera’s plot, the movie ties the fictional drama of Alfredo’s longing and Violetta’s slow dissolution to the performers’ efforts to portray those emotions, revealing the denouement of both narratives only at its end.

In so doing, Becoming Traviata -- opening in theaters across the US, and in Chicago on 7 June -- renders the opera’s production operatic, without succumbing to the overwhelming artifice that can make opera feel anachronistic in the age of reality entertainment. It’s a clever and remarkably effective way to update a mode of performance whose pantomime can seem bombastic when the camera zooms in close.

The approach helps to reveal the nuance of such performances. Though French soprano Natalie Dessay has the lead role, she is nearly upstaged by the matinee idol looks and throbbing voice of her costar, American tenor Charles Castronovo, when he first shows up. She certainly seems to find him charming, hesitating and mincing her way through their initial encounters. Castronovo, on the other hand, is all guileless braggadocio, and the two of them form an amusing parallel to their characters' movements.

The early moments of the film, when these two are just beginning to work their way through the score and mold their voices to its demands, indicate the musical heights the singers promise to scale. When Dessay is first coached by the opera’s director Jean-François Sivadier, she holds the power of her voice in check and steps through her staging as though she were unconvinced of its worth. But when Castronovo makes his entrance in the rehearsal room without holding anything back, she endeavors to match him. It takes her a few minutes to do so successfully, and these initial moments of failure are all the more involving for laying bare the process of transforming a series of directions into a full-fledged drama.

That process in turn reveals both Dessay’s and Castronovo’s enormous talents. A case in point is their rehearsal of the famous “Un dì, felice, eterea” duet: at first, Dessay swallows a tricky vocal run, leaving Castronovo hanging on the top note alone. She apologizes, and as they quickly give it another go, suddenly their voices are soaring together so achingly that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time that they weren’t, much less that it was mere seconds before.

Becoming Traviata repeatedly underscores the value of collaboration, among multiple elements in the production. When conductor Louis Langrée tells the chorus that their pianissimos should convey breathless excitement, it seems like a common enough direction. But when they run the passage again, and the excitement is suddenly palpable, an instruction that seemed procedural is transformed, now crucial to the entire enterprise.

As the film attends to detail, so too does Sivadier. He keeps up a constant dialogue with each of the singers, explaining and re-explaining the minutia of a character's motivation until his original point is very nearly obscured. Dessay makes for an excellent foil here, translating his theory into layman’s terms and puncturing particularly lofty statements with a well-chosen quip or a saucy wink. Their back-and-forth will seem familiar to anyone who has ever seen a behind-the-scenes featurette on a DVD, and holds a similar appeal for those interested in the process of putting together an immensely complicated work of art.

Dessay is unarguably the star of both the film and the opera, alternately self-effacing and confident. It’s a dichotomy that Béziat highlights through elegant, evocative shots, like Dessay idling balancing on the divider between the orchestra’s pit and auditorium just after the company has moved from the rehearsal room to the stage, an image imbued with a sense of physical and artistic risk that is all the more affecting for being so casual.

A similar moment comes at the end of the film, when Dessay practices falling onstage. A movement coach shows her the technique, and Dessay tries it once, then again, then again and again, and all of sudden, all she’s been doing for the last five minutes is falling down over and over, a sequence that is both absurd and somehow sublime. These are the actions of someone who is both an artist and a workman; in rehearsals, Dessay sings an octave lower than Verdi’s music mandates, presumably to save her voice for when it’s needed to impress. She knows when to withhold and when to give.

Glimpsing these different personalities and talents coalescing in Aix-en-Provence helps us to rethink opera more broadly, a form known for the thoroughness of its fantasy. The camera lens’ relentless observation puts the emphasis on the intricacies of the process rather than their outcome, and the product is so fascinating that it’s something of a letdown to see bits of the finished opera, which appear here as distanced and mannered after the immediacy of the rehearsals. In this performance, Verdi’s music is beautiful, thoughtful, and also somewhat remote. But when the singers encounter it for the first time, Dessay and Castronovo circling each other like the new lovers they are supposed to portray, Verdi’s music is raw and electrifying, expressing both the feelings of the characters and the people portraying them, an artistic journey whose moments of transcendence are all the more stunning for their transcience.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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