Giuseppe Guidicini would have been pleased.
Back in 1860, the Italian artist known for decoration of opera houses painted the stunningly ornate interiors of what Portland now calls Victoria Mansion.
It turns out that the Italianate foyer and grand stairwell have superb acoustics. And world-class opera singers spend nearly a month in Portland each summer, rehearsing for PORTopera’s summer production. Put the singers in the stairwell, and the arias ring from rafters.
“I don’t think there are many places in the States like this,” said tenor Jeffrey Gwaltney, who performed “Vesti La Giubba,” from “I Pagliacci.”
Four stars of the upcoming “La Boheme”– which opens at Merrill Auditorium this Wednesday – amazed a crowd of opera lovers at the joint benefit for PORTopera and Victoria Mansion.
Gwaltney (Rodolfo) was joined by Alyson Cambridge (Musetta), Jose Adam Perez (Colline), and Ben Wager (Schaunard) in performing operatic arias and Broadway show tunes.
Guests sipped cocktails, fanned themselves in the heat, and shouted “Bravo!” much as they might have in the mansion’s heyday.
“Their voices are so beautiful,” said mansion docent Michelle Kew. “And to have them in such a grand, beautiful setting couldn’t be more perfect.”
With high drama, Perez began singing before he came into view at the top of the stairs. And when the spellbound audience failed to clap during a high point, the baritone confidently started the applause himself.
“Some of these singers have sung on the Met stage,” said Russ Burleigh, co-founder of PORTopera. And Dona Vaughn, the artistic director for “La Boheme,” is “one of the best stage directors in the country,” he added.
“La Boheme,” by Puccini, is one of the most popular operas. It is about bohemians in Paris, and it is sung in Italian. But, as at all PORTopera performances, supra-titles will help the audience keep the story straight.
“This is really a story that moves you,” Burleigh said. “When you know the story of an opera and you hear it sung well, there’s nothing like it.”
The night of opera at the mansion was in a serenade sampler format rather than a full-length opera.
“It’s breathtaking,” said Linda Clark, visiting from Upstate New York. “The ambiance of this structure and the acoustics are incredible.”
Jack Riddle, co-founder of PORTopera, is quite pleased with the annual pairing of two like-minded organizations – PORTopera at Victoria Mansion. “And we manage to squeak out a few dollars in the end,” he said.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen opera live,” said Lucinda Harrington, in her new role as site manager at Victoria Mansion. “On a grad student budget, you don’t do a whole lot of things like opera, so this is a treat.”
“We’re lucky that PORTopera brings us this caliber of performance,” said Victoria Mansion board member Nancy Marino.
“This is a big deal for Portland,” added her husband, Mike Marino, who shares her appreciation for both historic preservation and opera.
“My father was a great fan of the opera,” said Mike Marino, the son an Italian immigrant. “He couldn’t sing, but he knew all the arias. And, once, he waited on the legendary Caruso as a waiter.”
Perhaps someday another waiter will boast of serving the great Gwaltney. “I love good beer and good food, so what’s not to love about Portland,” said the tenor, who is here for almost a month.
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at: