`Dream of Valentino' Is a Mixed Success

CONSIDERING the number of opera houses that have become graveyards for would-be overnight classics, it's something of a miracle when any opera house can identify a score worth producing, let alone do it justice.

The potential pitfalls are enormous: Is the libretto equal to the score? Or vice versa? How successful is the casting? How suitable the director? And so forth.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Opera mounted the world premiere of ``The Dream of Valentino,'' which it will continue to present in repertory into mid-February. The production is scheduled to be performed next year at the Dallas Opera.

In the case of this new work, the answers to some of the questions are both positive and negative.

The music is by Dominick Argento, scarcely a new name in operatic circles (this is his 13th opera), but far from being a household name. The libretto is by Charles Nolte, whose best-known writing credit to date is his previous collaboration with Mr. Argento, adapting Henry James's ``Aspern Papers'' for the operatic stage.

To begin with, the score is neither accessible nor particularly interesting. In the tradition of other 12-tone music written during the last 50 years, arias begin in one key, move to a second, and frequently go on to a third, fourth, or fifth. Characters sing-speak with the same musical palette; the composer clearly has no interest in individual psychological color.

Yet some degree of characterization does emerge, such as when scenes of one individual in conflict with another produce striking exercises in counterpoint, or when Argento abandons the orchestra altogether, providing a character with an a cappella sequence. He also occasionally employs a single instrument with the human voice, such as the violin or trumpet.

One would not describe Argento as an orchestral colorist; but what this particular story cries out for more than anything else is melody.

The jazz age is being evoked; moreover, Valentino came to prominence dancing the tango. But the composer never lets the melodic line be completed. Instead, he buries himself in 12-tone disharmony. Only at the beginning and end of the opera, when an on-stage gramophone plays a popular song about the film idol, does Argento produce a conventionally structured song. From its quality, one knows that he certainly could have provided more, had he chosen to.

Fortunately, librettist Nolte rises fully to the challenge of creating a sympathetic protagonist and a few key individuals who each want something from him.

Mr. Nolte has done his research, and he has a clear and viable point of view. As he tells it, Valentino was pushed and pulled by three strong and creative women: June Mathis, the screenwriter who discovered him; Natacha Rambova, the art director who became his second wife; and actress Alla Nazimova, whose Sunset Boulevard home - the Garden of Allah - was a famous romantic trysting spot.

Within the structure of flashback, we meet Valentino as a temperamental dance-hall gigolo who is discovered by Mathis and signed by Metro Pictures (before it became Metro Goldwin Mayer) for ``The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'' The creators of this production have had the courage to use an authentic film sequence with the real Valentino; unfortunately, the image only makes the singing copy pale by comparison.

Valentino, an overnight sensation, impulsively marries actress Jean Acker, who turns out to prefer her own sex. He moves on to the bisexual Rambova, whose art direction for Nazimova's silent film ``Salome,'' for example, was a classic. Though not completely divorced from Acker, Valentino marries Rambova, who is emotionally in the thrall of Nazimova.

None of this is easy to convey in short scenes, yet Nolte succeeds astonishingly well. He has created a composite Mogul, who is, according to a program note, part Mayer, part Zukor, part Schenck. The character is well-drawn, but Nolte has given him a nephew who, particularly as played and directed here, is unnecessarily obnoxious.

June Mathis is the opera's second most sympathetic character; in fact, Nolte boldly identifies her as the famous woman in black who anonymously attended Valentino's funeral, a choice that makes dramatic and emotional sense.

There is only one maddening inconstancy: Nazimova is - quite unfairly, one might add - characterized unsympathetically from her first scene, yet in a critical dream sequence preceding the climax of the opera, Argento and Nolte have her sing an aria in which she mourns the loss of her ``phantom lover'' (meaning Valentino, not Rambova). The change in tone toward a principal character is jarring and makes one wonder whether composer and librettist were always in sync.

At Argento's request, the Washington Opera engaged Swedish producer-director Ann-Margret Pettersson (who had impressed him with her production of ``Aspern Papers'' in Sweden) to direct this world premiere, and certainly from a visual point of view, the results are stunning.

The brilliant John Conklin has designed a series of fluid sets that re-create both an early dance-hall atmosphere and the flavor of a silent-film industry attempting to capture the essence of period romance. Conklin's funeral-parlor set with dozens of burning red candles is particularly haunting, aided by Joan Sullivan's exceptional lighting.

Donald Saddler's vivid but underused choreography and John Boesche's striking projections are also of great assistance. Costumes are by the well-known designer Valentino (no relation), and they are mostly excellent. With the ubiquitous Christopher Keene in the pit, the orchestra sounded confident and well-rehearsed.

But if Pettersson is to be commended for her eye, she must also be held accountable for some questionable judgment in casting and performance. Robert Brubaker simply doesn't read as the great Latin lover; his well-articulated tenor brings authority and feeling to the leading role, but he never begins to suggest a sex symbol, let alone a Latin one.

More damaging, Pettersson has directed Joyce Castle as Nazimova to play the silent screen legend as a kind of vulgar parody of Rosalind Russell. There is no attempt at a Russian accent, nor any suggestion of the taste and refinement that are the hallmarks of Nazimova's screen roles. (If Nolte could do so much research, why couldn't she?)

On the other hand, Pettersson should be congratulated for guiding at least two expert performances from Suzanne Murphy as June Mathis and Julian Patrick as the Mogul.

In spite of undeniable limitations in the music, this production should nevertheless be considered a success. It holds one's attention and tells a fascinating story with insight and theatricality. With some recasting and moderate rewriting, it could well endure.

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