Season's Greetings

Murder! Suicide! Hunchbacks! Womanizers! Killer statues! Randy widows! Dead nuns! It's opera!

It's Arizona Opera, to be precise. The Tucson-based company is packing all that into its 2001-2002 season, which opens in October. The five-opera lineup manages to seem well-rounded without being especially daring, aside from the art form's routine quota of sex and violence.

The season launches October 5-7 from the twisted shoulders of Rigoletto, the court jester who schemes revenge when his daughter is defiled by the Duke of Mantua, a reprehensible fellow who nevertheless gets two of Verdi's best arias. Interestingly, in an art still dominated by white singers, the company has cast African Americans Donnie Ray Albert and Gordon Hawkins to alternate in the title role, and Anita Johnson as the jester's daughter.

The Duke is bad enough, but the man who really can't keep his pants zipped is Don Giovanni. Arizona Opera's production of Mozart's seriocomic Don Juan tale will evoke Seville with scenic reproductions of paintings by Goya. Performances run November 9-11.

Come January it will be time to lighten up with Lehár's sparkling operetta The Merry Widow. (This work alone will be sung in English rather than in the original language, and all are accompanied by English surtitles.) The company promises sumptuous Art Nouveau sets and costumes in this production fresh from San Francisco Opera. The widow waltzes through Tucson January 18-20.

Things take a darker turn February 22-24 with Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. Premiered in 1957, this is the last opera so far to gain a sure foothold in the international repertory. This isn't one of Poulenc's usual frothy delights; it's about a confused young woman who mistakenly believes she'll find peace by entering a convent during the French Revolution. Every last soprano and mezzo on stage gets marched to the guillotine, the whacks of the blade heard clearly in the orchestra, yet this final scene contains some of the most moving, least sentimental music that old boulevardier Poulenc ever wrote.

Only one woman encounters a blade at the end of Madama Butterfly, but that's the sole element of restraint in one of Puccini's most effusive works. The names of the sopranos alternating in the title role--Ai-Lan Zhu and Guiping Deng--look more Chinese than Japanese, but at least Arizona Opera continues its resistance to lily-white casting for the April 5-7 performances. Can Nagasaki geisha Cio-Cio-San find lasting love with an American sailor? Of course not; it's opera!