'Valentino,' though worthy, needs improvements

January 17, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

A major opera usually has a serious intent, a narrative that catches the listener's interest and beautiful and stirring music.

Dominick Argento's "The Dream of Valentino," which received its world premiere Saturday from the Washington Opera in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, fulfills all three criteria. This work, co-commissioned by the Dallas Opera, has a powerful story (the libretto is by Charles Nolte) that uses the doomed silent film star to explore the American experience in the 1920s, the last decade of this country's innocence. Argento, who is one of America's best composers, has set this story to music that pierces the heart with lyrical directness and dramatic verve. Yet "The Dream of Valentino" is not as successful as it should have been.

Making such a judgment about a new work after only one hearing should make a critic uneasy. Plenty of first nighters -- intelligent ones, too -- didn't think much of some of the masterpieces by the likes of Mozart and Strauss. One simply can't always tell how many of the apparent faults of a new opera result from the work itself or the way it was performed, either from inadequacies in the performers or a lack of time and money needed to prepare it properly. We have become accustomed to the great operatic works of the past. But new works and those of the recent past (including some superb ones by Argento) have a hard time getting repeated. In attempting to enter the repertory, new pieces must confront the Dragon at the Gate: the enormous backlog of masterpieces already there.

With that said, this listener still feels compelled to call "Valentino's" exposition a mess. Even with the benefit of having read the vocal score and the libretto, he still had difficulty in following the all-important first scene.

On the page, the composer's juxtaposition of an imitation of an old Rudy Vallee-like tribute to the dead film star, a male chorus singing the Roman Catholic Requiem in Latin, a female chorus lamenting Valentino's death in English, and a duet between the characters of screenwriter June Mathis (who discovered the actor) and the Mogul (who represents the studio bosses who "developed" him) looked like a good idea. In actual performance, it sounded like an incoherent melange. Just as confusing was John Conklin's over-designed scene, a jumble of videos and '20s newspaper headlines projected upon a scrim, which assaulted and overwhelmed the eyes.

Despite this beginning, "Valentino" soon proved never less than interesting and often inspired. The hero's first aria ("It Was Destiny"), which declares his ambitions for greatness, revealed Argento's theatrical flair, his understanding and affection for the human voice and his penchant for color and melody from the orchestra. It was the kind of aria that brings cheers (it did) and was only the first of many (for all the lead singers) to come. Only a composer with Argento's sophisticated sense of irony would have put so much of the opera's most sentimental, almost Puccini-like music into the mouth of the Mogul (the superb Julian Patrick), its most cynical character. It was a decision that made musically concrete one of the work's major themes: how modern technology's media (in this case, Hollywood films) manipulate the public's emotions. And only an ingenious musical dramatist could have come up with Act I's hilarious a cappella sextet, in which the Mogul and his nephew, echoed by a quartet of yes-men, plot Valentino's future.

But there were also some bad choices. While much of the opera's finale was affecting -- June Mathis's farewell to Valentino (particularly in Suzanne Murphy's powerful delivery) touched the heart, and director Ann-Margret Pettersson's staging of the hero's death scene as a lurid nightmare was striking -- it went on far too long and (in its busyness) was sometimes almost as confusing as the opening scene. And while the opera was incisively conducted by Christopher Keene and mostly well sung, there was a big hole where its hero was supposed to be.

Tenor Robert Brubaker was not up to the demands of the piece. A lack of stamina in his consistently over-loud singing became evident in Act II in what sounded like frog-like bleats. Moreover, he simply didn't have the dramatic power to convince one of the genuineness of Valentino's dream of becoming a great artist.

Still, there is much more gold than dross in "Valentino" and Argento deserves opportunities to refine it.

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