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Opera lines up an edgy season

Between classics, director dares to tread some risky ground
by: ©2003 ROZARII LYNCH, For its next season, Portland Opera will perform Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (above, as produced in Seattle), for which several singers already are lined up, along with a couple of Verdi nuggets and Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.”

This will blow the gray hair back: The Portland Opera 2008-09 season's theme is Life on the Edge.

General Director Christopher Mattaliano continues his thematic and formulaic approach to the season, bookending the year with popular classics (this time by Verdi rather than Mozart) and throwing in a curveball in the form of Benjamin Britten's 'The Turn of the Screw.'

Filling the spot of the less obvious work by a megastar composer is Beethoven's 'Fidelio.' For the first time the annual chamber opera will be part of the subscription series: Cavalli's 'La Calisto' (1651) will play an extended run in the Newmark Theatre.

' 'The Turn of the Screw' will be the most challenging piece from a musical and emotional standpoint that this opera company has ever done,' Mattaliano said last week.

Based on Henry James' novella, the story concerns a governess whose two charges are haunted by the death of their previous governess and servant, who may have abused the children.

'I think it's one of the three or four great operas of the 20th century,' Mattaliano said. Britten's other great opera, 'Peter Grimes,' was ruled out because it was $500,000 more expensive to produce.

'I'm gradually weaning the audience into a style of music so they're not afraid of it,' the director said. His aim has been to introduce Portland audiences to both Britten and also baroque opera.

Mattaliano said people still tell him about the unpopular fornication-in-the-sandbox 'Julius Caesar' of 1999, the only time the company has put on a baroque opera in 43 years.

To be sung by the studio artists or apprentices, 'La Calisto' is an ironic tale of the gods Jupiter and Mercury coming down to Earth to have some fun.

Jupiter seduces Calisto, a virginal follower of the goddess Diana, by assuming the form of Diana himself. It all ends in tears - or bears - when Jupiter's wife turns her into a bear and, eventually, the constellation Ursa Major.

The season crystallized around the final show, 'Rigoletto.'

'Opera companies live and die by their Carmens, Bohèmes and Butterflies - these are their cash cows,' Mattaliano said. ' 'Rigoletto' is one of those operas you have to do every so often.'

He considered its themes and issues: 'It's a white-hot, emotionally charged piece about a father losing his only child based on a plot he set in motion himself. It's like Dostoevsky. It deals with lowlife characters, so I took that idea of operas that deal with people in extreme situations.'

He points out that in 'La Traviata' the courtesan Violetta's life is eating her alive, and 'Fidelio' is about a woman who goes to great lengths to rescue her husband from prison. 'And 'The Turn of the Screw' deals with incredible aspects of us as human beings,' Mattaliano said.

Mattaliano shops around constantly for high-quality productions. Between June 2006 and Jan. 17, he made 31 trips outside Portland, 22 of which were on the West Coast.

With the explosion in opera's popularity there is competition from such places as Louisville, Ky.; Mobile, Ala.; Omaha, Neb.; Norfolk, Va.; and Tacoma, Wash., so he recruits lead singers as soon as he can.

Next season's singing stars include many returning artists and people loyal to the director.

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Portland Opera's 2008/09 season

'La Traviata'

Giuseppe Verdi

Keller Auditorium

Begins Sept. 26

'Fidelio'

Ludwig van Beethoven

Keller Auditorium

Begins Nov. 7

'The Turn of the Screw'

Benjamin Britten

Keller Auditorium

Begins Feb. 6, 2009

'La Calisto'

Francesco Cavalli

Antoinette Hatfield Hall

Newmark Theatre

Begins March 13, 2009

'Rigoletto'

Giuseppe Verdi

Keller Auditorium

Begins May 8, 2009