As we rediscovered a couple of weeks ago, life is no party. Yet even when death insists on having the last word, the human hunger for life and love puts up a good fight. And that*to paraphrase the last line of another operatic wanton who gave her all for love*is the story of Violetta Valéry, heroine of Giuseppe Verdi's 1853 opera La Traviata.

Verdi composed La Traviata in a mere three months, inspired by the brief, brilliant life of the Paris courtesan Marie Duplessis. His white-hot speed was also fueled by personal experience: He and his live-in mistress (and future wife) suffered the same social ostracism Duplessis had known. All this delivers more than enough dramatic baggage for one soprano. But Verdi also expects his heroine to shift from Rossinian coloratura to Wagnerian volume without batting an eyelash--definitely a job for a seasoned vocal pro. Thus, what happened at the top of Portland Opera's colorful production of La Traviata Saturday night pointed up both the work's notorious difficulties and the gamble of entrusting a challenging role to an ingenue.

Young soprano Andrea Trebnik, in her Portland Opera debut, took on the part of Violetta with do-or-die pluck, assertively coquettish all the way to her Act III deathbed. She needed this courage, especially when, in the fearful wrestling match she had with her florid Act I cabaletta, "Sempre libera," she lost the battle of vocal and dramatic control. But flawless singing alone does not an effective operatic performance make. And for most of the evening, Trebnik offered a unique interpretation of this familiar character that was rich with genuine sweetness, pathos, anger and nobility. Whatever else may be said, few audience members around me were dry-eyed by the end--hardly an index of failure.

To be sure, Trebnik was ably abetted by her co-stars. The ardent, dusky-bronze tone and poised delivery of tenor Raymond Very, playing Violetta's conflicted lover, Alfredo Germont, proved the necessary foil for Trebnik's bright, sometimes unstable intensity. And baritone Stephen Powell brought handsome paternal warmth to the role of Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont; his Act II aria, "Di Provenza il mar," was a show-stopper.

Supporting roles were equally strong--baritone Michael Flaherty's arrogant Baron Duphol, bass André Flynn's sincere Dr. Grenvil, and that gem among Portland Opera's regulars, mezzo-soprano Christine Meadows, who sang the role of Flora, Violetta's gold-hearted courtesan friend. Rebecca Warner Woodcock invested Violetta's loyal maid, Annina, with starkly moving realism. As always, the Portland Opera chorus shone.

Conductor Valéry Ryvkin savored every pooled richness of Verdi's score, drawing from the orchestra a mostly clean, often shimmering performance. David Gano's gilded and chandeliered sets, borrowed from New Orleans Opera, ably conveyed magnificence running to seed. Against all those towering pilasters, Kristine McIntyre's direction and Anne Egan's choreography wove a complex intimacy smacking of country-house comedies of

La Traviata

Portland Opera at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW 2nd Ave., 241-1802. 7:30 pm Wednesday and Saturday, Sept. 26 and 29. $25-$125.