The Dream of Valentino is a two-act tour de force by Italian-American composer Dominick Argento. It was inspired, in part, by a portrait in prose of the great screen star written by H.L. Mencken, after a private meeting with Valentino. Mencken describes Valentino as youthful and confused, one whose dream of becoming a screen star has blossomed into a nightmare, in which all control of his private life has been taken over by those who direct his career. Rather than thrilled at being a national sex-symbol, Valentino is somewhat revolted by the thought, and completely afraid of his own persona. The action of the drama chronicles the main events of Valentino's life, including the failed marriages, the public scandals, the successes, the soul searching, and the final renunciation of Hollywood and its icons. The drama itself is enclosed by two scenes of Valentino already dead and lying in state. At the opening, his friend June Mathis laments his passing, while a Hollywood mogul regrets the loss of a great box office draw. At the close of the opera, riots break out in demonstration of the love which all had for him.
The libretto to The Dream of Valentino was written by Charles Nolte. The opera was commissioned by both the Washington Opera and the Dallas Opera companies. It premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on January 15, 1994. The following year, on January 6, it opened in Dallas, TX, at the Fair Park Music Hall. The cast called for is extensive, though few of the roles are large. Various groups of Hollywood types, such as Secretaries, Yes-Men, Reporters, Photographers, and Tango Dancers, make up the choruses and crowds that create the flexible dramatic texture around which the story is woven. Argento and Nolte use newspaper headlines with orchestral accompaniments to help chronicle the story. The opening act is eight scenes of event-filled action and confusion. It culminates in Valentino's stunning success as The Sheik and musical chaos as a studio orchestra begins to rehearse and various forces pull at the screen star. This large-scale number acts almost as a mid-point finale would in a traditional nineteenth-century opera. The centerpiece of the second half is a moving scene of introspection, one which combines various types of vocal declamation and atonal arioso. Playful use of dynamics and rubato, descriptive text setting, disjunct leaps, and verbal melodic rhythms, make this short monologue an arresting centerpiece, a still moment in a whirl of action and violent emotion. The denouement is the actor's tragic death of poverty and illness. Its coming is foreshadowed in a dance sequence in which the screen star falters and fails.