After the sumptuous promise of the rousing La Traviata (The Strayed Woman) operatic music filling the senses, the second thought that springs to mind when beginning to watch this docu-opera is, why is Pierre from Channel 4’s creepy The Returned taking time out from harbouring zombies to masquerading as a theatre/opera director? It throws you just for a second; is it actually a fictional recreation on offer?

The truth is, French actor Jean-François Sivadier has more strings to his bow, and film director Philippe Béziat’s intriguing (but equally frustrating) behind-the-scenes look at getting a production of Verdi’s famous opera off the ground is in fact directed by Sivadier who has a list of theatre credits as a ‘metteur en scène’ (stage director) for at least three other operas.

The story of La Traviata (in three acts) – originally named Violetta after the lead character (played by Met Opera soprano Natalie Dessay here) – is about a tragic love story between Violetta and Alfredo that ends in the death of Violetta from tuberculosis. Béziat’s documentary is like a front-row seat to the musical rehearsals only, minus seeing the end result (hence the irritation), shot in a series of Cinéma vérité wides and more intimate close-ups. It’s also a modern design in setting too, which adds intrigue and freshness to the proceedings.

Béziat, who has a history of filming musicians, says his reasoning for producing Traviata et nous suggests an exploration of composer Verdi’s talent as a playwright. Béziat captures key moments of the opera on camera, as though he was creating a film that he believes Verdi would have done with his work, had he been born in the 20th Century. It’s a compelling argument, especially since ‘casting’ Dessay in the lead role has all the presence and charisma of a leading film actress to carry this off. Naturally, Sivadier is aware of the camera but does not play to it, keeping the status quo as realistic as possible. It’s actually a chance to see Sivadier’s raw directing skill taking place as well.

Aside from the fun-loving (and slightly boisterous) Dessay – who keeps us guessing as to her next hairdo as part of her metamorphosis into Violetta, another lively character of the film is French conductor Louis Langrée who whips performers and members of the London Symphony Orchestra into shape with an infectious gaiety. Langrée compliments Sivadier’s more contemplative moments as the director tries to form something magical to view from the bare bones of a stage, a few chairs, some painted canvases and some musical ‘actors’. There is a strong sense of professionalism that Verdi’s work is in safe, creative hands too.

Becoming Traviata gives a compelling and rare insight into the daily life of the opera industry from the perspective of a filmmaker. It uses music and ambient sound (off camera also) to build the drama in the down periods between the camera falling in love with Dessay as Violetta as the lead protagonist. It’s just a crying shame we aren’t invited to witness decent-sized portions of the end result, but that’s just a personal gripe.