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Castleton Festival at Hylton Center

Sunday, June 30, dinner, 5 p.m.; concert 7 p.m.: “An Italian Extravaganza,” including a concert of opera highlights by Italy’s most celebrated composers--Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti, preceded by a three-course Italian paired with Italian wines prepared by Chef Louis Patierno, of Panino Ristorante in Manassas and Girasole Ristorante in The Plains. Dinner, 5 p.m.; concert 7 p.m. Stars tenor Jonathan Burton, baritone Corey Crider and lyric soprano Elizabeth Futral.

Thursday, July 18, 8 p.m.: “Mostly Mahler” concert, showcasing works by Mahler, Mendelssohn and others. Stars lyric soprano Jennifer Black.

Where: Hylton Center for the Performing Arts, George Mason University, Manassas campu

Tickets: $60, $45, $30 per concert. $48, $72, $96 for both concerts and save 20 percent. $75 per person for “An Italian Extravaganza” dinner

Special Free Lectures: Presented by guest artists and faculty members from the Castleton Festival. “An Italian Extravaganza,” Thursday, June 27, 1:30 p.m.; “Mostly Mahler,” Tuesday, July 16, 3 p.m. RSVP required. Email hylton@gmu.edu to RSVP.

Ticket Information: Visit the box office (open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) or charge by phone at 888-945-2468 or visit HyltonCenter.org.

For Castleton Festival in Rappahannock Program, Ticket and Other Information: Visit website at castletonfestival.org or call 866-974-0767.

Daydreaming of an idyll in Italy? The food, the wine, the music … ah, the music.

It may be for only one special evening, but the Hylton Performing Arts Center on George Mason University’s Manassas campus will go a long way to momentarily satisfying that desire Sunday evening when it presents “An Italian Extravaganza.”

The first offering this season in a flourishing three-year artistic partnership between the Hylton Center and the Castleton Festival, “An Italian Extravaganza” revolves around a concert of opera highlights by Italy’s most celebrated composers--Verdi, Puccini, Rossini and Donizetti.

Prior to the musical performance in its lush, 1,121-seat Merchant Hall, the Hylton Center will transport opera-goers to Italy with a special dinner that features a three-course seasonal menu of Italian cuisine paired with Italian wines.

The dinner--served in Hylton’s Gregory Family Theater and limited to 100--will be prepared by Chef Louis Patierno, of Panino Ristorante in Manassas and Girasole Ristorante in The Plains.

The thinking, said Rick Davis, 56, executive director of the Hylton Center, which opened in May 2010, is for center programming to offer more complete experiences.

“We’re young, and we’re experimenting with what works,” he explained. “And boy, does Italian food and opera go together!”

The concert itself features the 80-member Castleton Orchestra conducted by world-renowned conductor, Maestro Lorin Maazel, assisted by Conductor Antonio Méndez. It stars world-class soloists and Castleton alums tenor Jonathan Burton, whom the Baltimore Sun praised for having a voice of “thrilling power and beauty,” and baritone Corey Crider, who was lauded by Opera News for his “rich, dark baritone; a sumptuous, steady stream as smooth as silk.”

Internationally celebrated coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral, whose voice the Washington Post described as “tender, radiant and intimate,” also will perform. Davis, an opera buff, enthused, “Futral embodies her roles and is known as much for her acting as singing.”

Castleton Festival--founded by Maazel and his wife, famed German actress Dietlinde Turban--brings together experienced professionals with advanced young musicians and other performance artists, most in their 20s and 30s. They live, learn and perform at the Maazels sylvan, 600-acre working livestock farm in Rappahannock County.

Running July 3-28, the 2013 Castleton Festival in Rappahannock opens with a July 3 Family Day, including music by folk duo Robin and Linda Williams (in a nod to Virginia’s musical heritage) and fireworks.

The festival in Rappahannock also will feature productions of Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West,” Verdi’s “Otello” and Cocteau’s play and Poulenc’s opera “La Voix Humaine,” as well as concerts featuring the works of Britten, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The Castleton Festival at the Hylton Center will continue with a “Mostly Mahler” concert on Thursday, July 18. Showcasing works by Mahler, Mendelssohn and others, it stars lyric soprano Jennifer Black, whom the Denver Post praised as “a strong all-round singer with a big, lustrous sound and stage presence to match.”

The works offered this season at both the Castleton Festival in Rappahannock and the Hylton Center are aligned by their contrasting themes of love, forgiveness and betrayal, and all are closely associated with Maazel.

Davis continues to be thrilled with the partnership between the Hylton Center and its “world-class” neighbor. “We very much want the Castleton Festival to succeed in Rappahannock,” he said. “It resonates with Hylton’s mission to get people in this region to venture west. We hear every year that people learn about Castleton from the Hylton performances.”

As importantly, he added, “It is truly one of our opportunities to present the world’s best. … Maazel represents the top echelon of conductors. The young musicians that he attracts, on the cusp of great careers, are so energetic and committed and talented.”

“Tomorrow’s stars,” as Maazel himself describes them.

Crider, 36, one of those accomplished and rising young musicians nurtured by Maazel and the Castleton experience, is spending his fourth summer with the festival, which is celebrating its fifth season.

“Everyone who I trust sees me moving into more Verdi in the next 10 years—the prime years of my career--with more stability and maturity in my voice. … I haven’t hit my stride, but I’m beginning to narrow the competition,” Crider buoyantly suggested in a recent phone conversation.

Someone who grew up in Marion, Ky., with rock rather than classical music, Crider didn’t connect with opera until a college voice teacher noticed his rich baritone voice emerging and urged him to audition for a masters program in opera.

Crider--then an apprentice in the Lyric Opera Company of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center--was discovered by Nancy Gustafson, the Castleton Festival’s general manager, head of its CATS (Castleton Artists Training) Seminars, and an operatic soprano who sang in all the world’s major opera houses for three decades.

After auditioning for her, Gustafson, also a professor at Northwestern University, had him sing for Maazel. “I will look back and say my relationship with Maestro Maazel is what sustained me early in my career,” Crider mused.

Last summer season at the Hylton, Crider and Burton performed together in the concert version of “La Boheme.” An apt pairing, the young baritone and tenor have been “best friends” for 14 years, ever since meeting at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music when they were both in their early 20s. On Sunday, they will perform two duets together.

They include the Act 4 duet from “La Boheme,” “O Mimì, tu più non torni,” which Crider has happily performed many times with Burton, and “E lui! Desso!,” from Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” which Crider excitedly described as “a real barn burner that gets pretty exciting.”

In the “E lui! Desso!” duet, Crider further explained, the tenor and baritone pledge allegiance to each other. Not surprisingly, he noted, “We have pretty convincing chemistry; we act like brothers and sound like brothers.”

This evening of Italian opera was developed from an idea first conceived by the two close friends. “Our original intent was selfish; we love singing together, and we’ve been dreaming of doing this for 14 years,” Crider said, explaining that an important inspiration was the duets of legendary tenor Richard Tucker and baritone Robert Merrill.

A first step toward making good on that dream, Crider marveled, “I certainly didn’t think we’d be doing this with Lorin Maazel. That’s starting on the right foot!”

Groundwork for the Hylton/Castleton partnership began when the center was still under construction. Prior to its opening in May 2010, William Reeder, dean of GMU’s School of Visual and Performing Arts, approached Maazel, suggesting: “You have a festival, and we have a hall.”

After taking a hard-hat tour, Maazel--who was thrilled with everything from the dressing rooms to the rehearsal space to the great acoustics as well as proximity to the Castleton Festival in Rappahannock—was more than sold on the idea.

For Davis, the fact that Maazel, who has conducted in every major opera house in the world and then some, appreciates the Hylton Center as a performance venue remains a major coup. “We’re exciting and elegant but not fussy,” Davis said, describing a few more of Hylton’s allures.

As an additional fillip for this season’s Castleton offerings at the Hylton Center, guest artists and faculty members will present free public lectures (RSVP required) several days prior to both performances. The “An Italian Extravaganza” lecture will be held Thursday, June 27, 1:30 p.m.; the “Mostly Mahler” lecture will be offered Tuesday, July 16, 3 p.m.

“Both [concerts] are equally exciting programs but different enough that classical music lovers will want to experience both,” Davis said.

Plus, “there’s an electricity between Maestro Maazel and his players. Their chemistry is really something; it’s reason alone to hear these concerts live.”