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The Dream of Valentino
Hollywood story: Harris and Valenti in Minnesota Opera's Dream of Valentino
© Michal Daniel 2014
In one of the more striking scenes in The Dream of Valentino, the opera by Dominick Argento and Charles Nolte that Minnesota Opera presented at the Ordway Center beginning on March 1, Rudolph Valentino sits at a dressing-room table removing his makeup. He's already a star of the silent screen, known worldwide and adored by millions of women. But he's adrift. His dream of becoming an artist has gone up in smoke. His films are trashy, and he's broke. With each dab of makeup removed, more of him disappears. "Who is this stranger?" he says, staring at the mirror in front of him. In just a year, at thirty-one, he would be dead.
The opera, as its title suggests, is about dreams, and most of it, appropriately, takes place in the dream factory called Hollywood. Valentino, an Italian immigrant, comes to America dreaming of becoming a great actor. It turns out he has a natural gift — enormous screen presence that projects a new kind of dangerous sensuality. Up on the big screen, he inhabits people's dreams and fantasies, but he does so in real life, too. The Mogul wants him for the money he will make for the studio ("I see cash in that face"). The screenwriter June Mathis, his only real friend, wants him to remain true to his vision ("Follow your dream not theirs"). The actress Alla Nazimova wants him to revive her fading career.
Nolte's libretto handles all of this with skill. Scenes unfold dramatically, one fading into the next like screen dissolves. Washington Opera gave the premiere of the opera in 1994. The work seen here can be called a premiere, too, as it's a radical revision. Argento cut forty minutes out of the original score, and the result is a triumph. There isn't a wasted word or note, yet the score is full of invention and a kind of playfulness — virtuoso touches that exist not so much for their own sake as to create bright threads in an alluring fabric. Among those threads are the way the snappy Charleston gradually emerges from the crowd noise and laughter in the opening scene; the Mogul's three secretaries sounding like the Boswell Sisters singing an actual fugue; the authentic-sounding Baroque idiom in the orchestra during the Monsieur Beaucaire scene; the sultry tangos that dance through the evening; and, finally, the touching and yet disturbing funeral scene (with the lush Sigmund Romberg-style tune coming out of the old Victrola onstage) in which the hordes of Valentino fans break through the barrier and scramble to the star's coffin to worship him and maybe grab a souvenir — a flower or, even better, a lock of hair. To be sure, this is a dark vision of life — almost everyone is predatory, and make no mistake: fame kills — but it's presented with such sympathy, especially for the title character, that the work becomes emotionally nourishing.
Much of that nourishment came from the excellent production — its sharp cast, its evocative look, the obvious care taken over musical and dramatic values, all under the steady hand of director Eric Simonson, who brought a vivid reality to the happenings onstage. Tenor James Valenti's Valentino, appropriately handsome and charismatic, displaying a rich-sounding, husky tenor, gave equal vent to the character's insecurities and frustrations. Alan Held's Mogul sang with resonance, looked like Daddy Warbucks and showed himself to be a kind of visionary in his final scenes. And June Mathis proved to be a great role for Brenda Harris, who acted sincerely and sang elegantly. Among the rest, all to be praised, were Victoria Vargas, John Robert Lindsey, Angela Mortellaro and Eve Gigliotti. Erhard Rom designed the atmospheric sets, Karin Kopischke the eye-filling costumes, Robert Wierzel the lighting and Peter Nigrini the projections. Drawing a lush sound from the orchestra, Christoph Campestrini conducted with flair and precision.
Valentino, the story of "a man who lost his way," as June Mathis puts it, seems bound to make its way into the operatic repertoire. Sadly, there will be no more operas from Argento, who has written fourteen of them. At eighty-six, he says he will write no more. A long-time resident of Minneapolis, he was enthusiastically applauded at the Ordway on opening night.
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