In one of the more striking scenes in “The Dream of Valentino,” the opera by Dominick Argento and Charles Nolte that Minnesota Opera is presenting at Ordway Center, 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 gone adrift, not just his career but his sense of himself. His dream of becoming an artist has gone up in smoke. His films are trashy, and he’s broke. He no longer knows who he is. 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 31, 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 fairy godmother and 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 this skillfully. Scenes unfold clearly and dramatically, one fading into the next like screen dissolves. Washington Opera gave the premiere of the opera in 1994. The work seen here can legitimately be called a premiere, too, as it’s a radical revision. Argento cut 40 minutes out of the original score, and the result is a triumph.
There isn’t a wasted word or note, and yet the score is full of invention and a kind of playfulness — virtuosic touches that exist not so much for their own sake as to create bright threads in an alluring fabric. Among those threads: the way the snappy Charleston gradually emerges from the crowd noise and laughter in the opening scene; the way the Mogul’s three secretaries sound 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, in the touching and yet disturbing funeral scene, with the lush Sigmund Romberg-style tune coming out of the old Victrola onstage, 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 comes from the excellence of the production: its sharp cast, its evocative look, the obvious care taken for musical and dramatic values, all this under the steady hand of director Eric Simonson, who brings a vivid reality to the happenings onstage.
James Valenti’s Valentino, appropriately handsome and charismatic, displaying a rich-sounding, husky tenor, gives equal vent to the character’s insecurities and frustrations, suggesting that at some level the character knows he’ll never be as big or as interesting as his screen image. Alan Held’s Mogul sings with resonance, looks like Daddy Warbucks and, though obviously the heavy in the story, shows himself to be a kind of visionary in his final scenes. And June Mathis proves to be a great role for Brenda Harris, who doesn’t have to push her resilient voice so hard here as she does in the bel-canto parts she has sung for this company.
Among the rest, all to be praised, are Victoria Vargas, John Robert Lindsey, Angela Mortellaro, Eve Gigliotti and the two expert dancers, Aleutian Calabay and Ann Person, as choreographed by Heidi Spesard-Noble. 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 a feeling for precision.
“Valentino,” the story of “a man who lost his way,” as June Mathis puts it, is surely to make its way into the operatic repertoire. The sadness is that there will be no more operas from Argento, 86, who has written 14 of them but says he will write no more. A long-time inhabitant of Minneapolis, he was enthusiastically applauded Saturday night. The other sadness is that Nolte, Argento’s colleague for many years at the University of Minnesota — actor, teacher and perhaps under-appreciated playwright, who died in 2010 — couldn’t have been at the Ordway to share in the much-deserved applause.