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Sounding the depths of 'The Dream of Valentino'

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Minnesota Opera's production of Dominick Argento's "The Dream of Valentino"

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If men are known by the power of their enemies, silent film actor Rudolph Valentino qualifies as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. If men overcome their foes through the support of their friends, he also was one of Tinseltown’s most forsaken men.

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This tragedy forms the crux of Dominick Argento’s opera, “The Dream of Valentino,” that opened at the Ordway Theater for the Performing Arts March, 1, 2014. A revision of the composer’s 1994 version, the Minnesota Opera’s rendering makes Valentino a sexy, hapless pawn manipulated by Hollywood’s star-making machine and the hangers-on that stardom attracts.

James Valenti’s performance hits all the right notes, particularly his second-act aria where he wonders what happened to his dignity and ambition, but Argento’s opera is more tragic meditation upon the consequences of fame than documentary on the actor’s life. However unhappy he may have been, Valentino’s gastric ulcer did not develop from despondency over his career nor did it take his life.

Other musical works such as “A Star Is Born” have used the impact of stardom on private life for tragic purposes, but Valentino’s sense of dignity echoes Don Lockwood’s motto, “Dignity, always dignity” in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Argento’s opera mines the pathos in Valentino’s plight as innocent victim of the greed and jealousy that motivate the business machinations of “The Mogul” and his sycophantic henchmen. Indeed, Alan Held’s “Daddy Warbucks” impersonation dominates the final scenes to the extent that Valentino’s fate becomes a cautionary tale about venturing beyond one’s depth.

This intellectual approach may explain Anne Midgette’s observation that Argento’s operas are “well received at their premieres,” but “have seldom been revived.” Without the “common hook” of a hero who controls his destiny in many current popular dramatizations, few audiences want to witness weak heroes regardless how psychological or situational their justification. Like Argento’s narrative, his score’s tonalities undercut the hero’s actions and rob the audience of identifying with his successes and sympathizing with his failures.

That the cast surmounts these obstacles testifies to their acting and singing abilities. Brenda Harris as Valentino’s sole friend, June Mathis, is fine in lamenting Valentino’s plight and her inability to save him from it. Victoria Vargas (Natacha Rambova), Eve Gigliotti (Alla Naximova), Angela Mortellaro (Jean Acker) form an excellent trio of harpies who provide the ammunition the Mogul uses to destroy Valentino’s reputation and self-esteem. Conductor Christoph Campestrini ably handles the challenging score and Heidi Spesard-Noble provides some marvelously slinky tangos. Set designer Erhard Rom’s back-projections and tinny horn phonograph embellish the pathos of Valentino’s predicament.

Opening on Academy Awards weekend seems more than happy coincidence for this ironic tale of Hollywood happiness. With all the new faces parading the Oscars red carpet Sunday evening, “The Dream of Valentino” could aid to sound out and prevent others from succumbing to Tinseltown’s lures of fame and (mis)fortune.

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