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New San Diego Opera season features women of action and compassion

The 2011 SDO season of four operas opening Jan. 29 showcases four heroines of diverse personalities. They span from the ice-princess Turandot and the spitfire gypsy Carmen to the aristocratic but melancholy Marschallin and naïve country girl Marguerite. That's plenty of variety to spice the repertory.

How do the divas' men folk deal with these personalities? The mysterious Caláf is determined to risk his head for the hand of the frigid Chinese princess; Don José has to kill Carmen to keep his unruly temptress from running off with the glamorous matador, Escamillo. These scenarios open and close the season.

In less violent settings, the toy-boy cavalier Octavian finds fresh love with a girl his own age but feels compassion and some guilt for the mature but loving Marschallin. A young, rejuvenated Faust, with help from the Devil himself, debauches the virginal Marguerite for the price of his soul. These two tales fill in the second and third productions.

These brief character profiles define the drama of the four popular operas to be staged at the Civic Theatre from January to May. Expanding on the libretti for each production, a synopsis for each opera explains how these women of action and compassion are the engines that drive the stage drama.

The season opener, "Turandot," was Puccini's last opera. In fact, he didn't finish the work before he died, leaving it to Arturo Toscanini to select a disciple to put the finishing touches on the final scene that Puccini had sketched. The legendary Chinese princess will only marry a royal suitor that can solve her three riddles or lose his head. Caláf meets the challenge that many before have failed. In a turnabout, he challenges his reluctant trophy wife to discover his name to forfeit her betrothal. It all ends happily when Turandot melts under her lover's spell with spectacular music and vivid designs by renowned artist David Hockney.

The second production, "Der Rosenkavalier," shifts from legendary China to sophisticated, aristocratic Vienna. A mature noble lady has a teenage lover whom she fears will find a younger interest. That happens when the young cavalier is sent to present a silver rose on behalf of a loutish aristocrat who seeks the girl's wealth to support his wayward life. Naturally, the two teens fall in love on the spot and plot to dispose of the obnoxious Baron Ochs. After a caper in a country inn, the young lovers are pledged to each other with the blessings of the noble lady who wisely realizes her affair has ended. Richard Strauss composed romantic, yet nostalgic, music to depict the erotic awakening of love for a young man and the closure of his relationship with a caring older woman.

The third production is a classic tale of good overcoming evil that pits Mèphistophélès against the heavenly angels protecting an innocent country girl from damnation after her illicit tryst with Faust. The aged philosopher, who bargained with the Devil for return of his ardent youth, goes on a skirt-chasing escapade. Marguerite's pure innocence overcomes her doom in a chorus of angels while Faust is hauled off to hell. The heavy-duty drama is given a lift with Charles Gounod's lyrical music.

Ever-popular "Carmen" closes the season with all the excitement and spectacle of Spanish dances and bullfights. The wayward gypsy girl seduces a naïve soldier from the country, then expects him to join her gang in an itinerant life of smuggling. The poor boy complies until his lover shows interest in the dashing toreador, Escamillo. Rejection does not go down well for Don José who kills Carmen in a desperate, jealous rage.

To further describe the primary characters featured in the SDO season for 2011, here are suggested books to match their personalities and to help them overcome their individual qualms.

Turandot, the frigid princess who hates men and beheads her unlucky suitors: "The Joy of Sex"

The mysterious Calàf who won Turandot in a contest by solving her three riddles: "A World Treasury of Riddles" or "The New York Times Supersized Book of Sunday Crosswords"

A wistful Marschallin realizing she is losing her teen lover to a pretty young soubrette: "Overcoming Depression and Anxiety"

The dashing, young cavalier Octavian who discovered sex aided by a mature aristocratic beauty: "Precocious Youth: A Study of Teenage Sex"

Baron Ochs, the uncouth relative of the Marschallin, seeking a marriage for money: "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior"

The aging philosopher Faust who trades his soul to regain his youthful philandering: "Overcoming Evil God's Way"

Naïve Marguerite smitten by the handsome Faust under the Devil's spell: "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care"

The fiery gypsy Carmen predicting her death by discarding Don José for a new lover: Nancy Drew's "The Fortune Teller's Secret"

Tragic Don José having trouble in his relationships by confronting his estranged lover Carmen: "Make Peace With Your Mistakes" or "Attitude Adjustment"

All of these books are available online at Amazon.com.

All performances are held at the Civic Theatre. Tickets for the 2011 season or single operas are available at 619-533-7000 or online at sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.

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