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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Minnesota Opera's "The Dream of Valentino" - magical press and social media night!

Last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Minnesota Opera's social media/press night for Dominick Argento's "The Dream of Valentino." Argento's hilarious "Casanova's Homecoming" remains one of my favorite operatic comedies, and I've sung many of his choral pieces over the years so as a fan of both Argento and opera (and of Argento's operas), I've been looking forward to this production for a while.

"Valentino" is the story of a man with a lofty dream, who loses both his way and his sense of self during his meteoric rise to fame. Valentino arrives in New York, an Italian immigrant "fresh off the boat" with big dreams of becoming a famous actor - a true artist. In the opening scene, we see Valentino trying to make ends meet as a "dance hall pimp," essentially a glorified male escort whose job it is to dance with women at the dance hall. Despite the somewhat degrading role, Valentino wants to dance with elegance and class. When one of the dance hall's female patrons tries to dance with him in a way he sees as lewd, he staunchly refuses explaining that he is an artist - "I will not dance like that with you."

Symbolically, the singer (Victoria Vargas) who plays the woman in the dance hall also sings the part of Natcha Rambova, one of the filmmakers who later lures Valentino away from his artistic vision and ultimately towards his downfall. The dancehall scene presents us with a microcosm of the entertainment industry Valentino is heading towards - one where he will be pulled and persuaded to give up his dream by those who have something else in mind for him.

Valentino's talent and natural charisma on screen, along with his dark and mysterious good looks, begin to garner attention and soon everyone wants a piece of his success. The actor finds himself pulled further and further away from his dream, starring in trashy films and wondering what has become of his dream - and his identity.

As usual, the Minnesota Opera blew me away with its visual presentation. The use of film effects, old photos and newspapers, and the slightly muted color scheme set the scene brilliantly, and along with the fantastic costumes helped to recall the era of silent film. But the lessons of "Valentino" are clearly not the lessons of the past - the story of a star built up by the media, only to be torn down as soon as it's convenient for those who effectively 'made' him in the first place, resonates perhaps even more strongly today.

Even more relevant than the familiar 'downfall of a celebrity' trajectory is the opera's exploration of identity and legacy. Clearly, Valentino presents a dark vision of human nature - nearly everyone in Valentino's world is using him to further their own ends. Even his mentor June Mathis (beautifully sung by my idol Brenda Harris) unintentionally hands him over to the wolves in a misguided attempt to help him stay true to his vision. Valentino underscores the importance of staying true to oneself, and of following your vision despite what everyone else thinks is best.

But 'Valentino' doesn't really give us an answer. How do we, in fact, maintain our integrity in a subversive and manipulative world? Is giving up our happiness worth the opportunity to attain immortality?

All the singers were wonderful, but Brenda Harris (June Mathis), Alan Held (the Mogul), were the evening's true standouts. Harris is always wonderful to watch, but Held's smarmy yet disturbingly visionary Mogul made for an excellent villan. Argento's through-composed score flows beautifully, and makes creative use of a variety of musical forms and instrumental accompaniments.

Ultimately though, I wished there had been more material here. While 'Valentino' raises a number of interesting questions, its under-two-hour running time barely provides enough time to scratch their surface. The characters could have been more fully fleshed out, the issues more deeply delved into. Evidently Argento's original score was much longer and I'm now extremely curious to hear the material that was cut. Overall this was a very well-executed production of an opera which, while very good, doesn't quite live up to its potential.

I'm seeing 'Valentino' again on Saturday with Ben, and am definitely excited to see it again from a different audience vantage point (and with an actual audience this time!). I did really enjoy the press screening - special shout-out to Tessa RJ for the invitation! I'm hoping to sign up for a few more of these evenings in the future, it's fun to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show prior to opening night.

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