Every composer, said Dominick Argento, hears things in the premiere of his work that he wants to change.
“You have to let it go,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. “Then you calm down and come back at it with fresh eyes.”
In his case, he is returning to “The Dream of Valentino” 18 years after the opera about silent-film star Rudolph Valentino opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
He has spent more than a year overhauling the work, since Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson mentioned that he’d like to revive it.
“He always had in the back of his mind how to make the piece play in a more fleet manner,” Johnson said. “The first version, there was a funeral liturgy and it slowed the piece down. Now it starts with a fox trot and goes right in the dance hall and gets right into the life of Valentino.”
We will see the results Saturday when “Valentino” opens at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. With tenor James Valenti in the title role, Argento sounded very comfortable as he spoke about what he now considers more of a premiere than the Washington Opera production.
“Valenti and Valentino and Valentine’s,” Argento said with the tenor seated next to him in a recent interview. “How can you go wrong?”
Valenti frequently visits Minnesota, where he apprenticed before going off to a fine international career. In April he will be back at the Metropolitan Opera in “Madama Butterfly.” Last fall he did Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at the Lyric in Chicago and in Austin, Texas. He sang a Schubert Club recital last February at the Ordway and was last with the Minnesota Opera in 2012’s “Werther.”
Even when he’s not in the Twin Cities, Valenti said, he checks in regularly with Johnson as a sounding board on projects. “He knows me,” Valenti said.
With his dark, chiseled cheekbones and Roman nose, Valenti makes perfect sense as Valentino.
“You are the only person who can do it,” Johnson told Valenti on one occasion.
How could he say no?
The handful of films starring Valentino lit up the sky. He exhaled such phenomenal charisma that his death in 1926, at age 31, provoked legendary grief among his fans.
Despite his white-hot popularity, his career was fraught with distress. He was inexperienced in the ways of Hollywood, abused by producers and mistrusted by men who considered him a dandy. For example, 1921’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” launched his celebrity, but the studio didn’t want to recognize that Valentino brought in the crowds. He was wasted on two subsequent films before being featured again in “The Sheik.”
At a time when stars such as Gloria Swanson were knocking down $7,000 a week, producers begrudged him $500 a week. He also married poorly; fell in love with the controlling designer/director Natacha Rambova, who tried to mold him to her desires, and fell into a sense of insecurity.
“I’m playing him at the beginning as very self-assured,” said Valenti. “But there is a vulnerability, a real boyishness in him that I identify with, and that emerges.”
Valentino’s one defender and confidante was screenwriter June Mathis, who discovered the young man. Brenda Harris, fresh off Lady Macbeth with the Minnesota Opera, will sing the soprano role in the new production, staged by Eric Simonson.
Hollywood and 12-tone
Simonson’s presence on the project gladdens Argento. The 1994 production was staged by Ann-Margret Pettersson, a Swedish director who had greatly impressed Argento with an earlier production of his opera “The Aspern Papers.” He had requested that Pettersson direct “Valentino” so he has only himself to blame that the Swede was not sufficiently Hollywood.
“Eric lives in Hollywood,” Argento said. “A piece on Valentino needs to be Hollywood, and he gets that.”
Valenti, meantime, underestimated the difficulty of making Argento’s 12-tone score sound natural in his mouth.
“It was a bit intimidating, and I had to study it quite a lot,” he said. “It’s very intelligent music.”
Argento, noting that Valenti’s natural material is the French and Italian heroic characters, wondered how the tenor would receive this challenge.
“I was afraid James would say, ‘I’m going to sing that?!’ ”
Argento, 86, said he has only one sadness about this new production. He composed “The Dream of Valentino” with his frequent collaborator and friend, playwright/actor Charles Nolte, who died four years ago.
“That’s my big regret,” he said. “People don’t talk enough about Charles’ libretto. I asked him to write it because he knew Hollywood.”