Monday, March 3, 2014

A Voluptuous "Valentino"

What happens when an entire industry is waylaid by the advent of technology?




In a way, American society is experiencing this phenomenon today. Outsourcing has eliminated hands-on, uneducated work; offices are emptied due to overseas call centers; machines are able to perform the essential tasks of a blue-collar employee. 

While Valentino, the new feature at the Minnesota Opera, isn't quite about societal advancement or displacement (a la Singing in the Rain or The Artist), it very much showcases what happens when a human commodity of any sort (be it an actor, secretary, CEO, or mechanic) becomes unwieldy and ultimately replaceable. 

Based on the life of the silent film superstar Rudolph Valentino, the opera Valentino chronicles an immigrant's rise to and epic fall from the entertainment firmament. Valentino's blessing at the start of his career (a firm belief in his talent and value) becomes his downfall (a pride unable to be overruled despite good reason). As a beautiful, untarnished young man, Rudolph is a highly desirable property in the emerging visual juggernaut of Hollywood. When several moguls and savvy players seize upon this potential, Rudolph's internal character (and thus his career) are destroyed by the mechanics of fame.

In many ways, Valentino is a new venture for the Minnesota Opera. The most obvious reason is that it is naturally set in a far more modern era than those in which most opera is portrayed; as such, the set is much harsher, more electric, and cold than the lush backdrops of, say, the 18th century royals might be. In this, as always, the Minnesota Opera succeeds; the set perfectly backdrops the narrative, and for any opera goer it is an exciting departure from the usual trappings. 

Musically, it's also a departure - but not a favorable one, in my opinion. The orchestra and vocalists both provide lovely performances, but rarely seem to agree in their efforts. I'm not sure if it's a musical attempt to echo the times and/or Joyce (aka an intentionally dissonant and abrasive tone), or simply a difficulty with the range of the original cast, but Valentino struggles with cohesion.

That's not to say that it's bad, though - there are still lovely moments, particularly between James Valenti (Valentino, *appropriately*) and Brenda Harris (as June Harris, and who, notably, last had a SPECTACULAR turn as Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart).  Their duets are the star of the story, and it's a pleasure to watch them interact. 

The Minnesota Opera has a fabulous cast, fabulous set and costume designers (in my opinion, some of the best in the Twin Cities, in fact), and this is an engaging narrative. Is it what you would expect from an opera, particularly musically? Not at all. But it is still enormously engaging, and very worth a trip. Check out the details and the rest of the season here by clicking on this link.