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La Traviata Dessay

Last season the Metropolitan Opera had an enormous success with Willy Decker’s grippingly spare, almost surreal new production of Verdi’s “Traviata.” It has come back this season as a vehicle for the soprano Natalie Dessay. Ms. Dessay missed the first performance on Friday night due to illness, so the veteran soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, an admirable artist, took over.

On Tuesday night Ms. Dessay sang the second performance, conducted by Fabio Luisi. This was her first time portraying the touchstone role of Violetta at the Met. And before she uttered a note, Ms. Dessay, who had originally intended to be an actress, made a wrenching impression as the fatally ill courtesan.

The production places the action entirely within a curved, bright-gray wall that looks like an arena. To the side a gigantic clock ticks off the diminishing minutes of Violetta’s life. As Mr. Luisi conducted the orchestral prelude, which begins with melancholic music for strings, the petite Ms. Dessay appeared in a short crimson cocktail dress, looking haggard and blank faced.

Dragging her feet, she walked unsteadily, a woman with no doubt that her life is slipping away. But when she heard the bustle of guests approaching, she shook out the wrinkles from her dress, took a whiff of a white camellia, and put on her party face.

Singing Violetta’s first effusive lines, Ms. Dessay sounded vocally shaky, with some wobbly sustained tones and dry patches. But she soon warmed up and rose to the occasion when Alfredo, the man who has fallen for her from afar (the tenor Matthew Polenzani, who sang beautifully all night), offered a toast. Ms. Dessay joined in with lilting, carefree exchanges during the “Libiamo” duet and chorus.

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The resulting documentary, "Becoming Traviata," lifts the curtain on the rehearsal for a major operatic production, a lengthy process that is usually off-limits to the public. The documentary, which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, follows Dessay and director Jean-Francois Sivadier as they work out the staging of Verdi's 1853 opera about a Parisian courtesan and her romantic entanglements.

The cast includes tenor Charles Castronovo -- who hails from Southern California and has been a Los Angeles Opera regular -- in the role of Alfredo, one of Violetta's suitors.

In a strange choice, the movie never shows the finished production that was presented to audiences at Aix-en-Provence. The focus on the rehearsal process -- to the exclusion of everything else -- was made by documentary filmmaker Philippe Béziat. 

"It was a deliberate choice to just show behind the scenes," Béziat said on the phone from Paris. Speaking in French, he explained that his team shot more than 100 hours of footage that was eventually edited down to a two-hour running time.

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Béziat said he wanted to create an artistically conceptual documentary. "There's a Brechtian distance that we wanted to achieve, so that the viewer can enter into the opera in a different way," he said. 

Despite her initial qualms, Dessay said she's pleased with the way the movie turned out.

"I'm happy about the result because it explains what we're doing but it stays mysterious. There's no recipe for what we do," she said.

When asked about the phenomena of operas being broadcast to cinemas, like the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD series, the soprano said she has mixed feelings.

"On one side, people who can't afford to go to New York can have access to that. On the other hand, maybe they won't make the effort to go if they have that," she said.

"I think that opera is a dying form," Dessay continued. "We do the works of the past over and over.... Opera is an old lady who is dying little by little. But we love this old lady."

For opera fans interested in seeing the full "La Traviata" production from Aix-en-Provence, Arte has posted a video of the performance that can be viewed free for the next three weeks.