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Love triangles set stage for political intrigues in grand opera style

San Diego Opera opens its 43rd season at the Civic Theatre in January with a lineup of six juicy affaires de coeur that set rivals for the same lover against each other. This is not unusual for the typical opera plot. It's not very different in today's soap operas, except for the carnage in the opera house.

The opening production of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" closes with the self-imposed death of the lovers to triumph over the seductive wiles of "the other woman." Ending the season in May, Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers" is the one and only opera on the roster that allows the lovers to escape certain execution and go on to a happy future together with the assistance and blessing of the losing suitor who forfeits his life

In between are four operas with classic love triangles ending in tragedy for the interloper who dared to woo someone else's girl or a jilted lover who lost her guy to a rival. As mix and match affairs go, it's always bad news for the third person in the triangle.

"Tannhäuser" is a medieval tale of a minstrel knight caught in the web of a sensual love affair with a mythical goddess while longing to return to reality and his pious true love. His zealous version of how to evoke passion gets him in trouble with the other virtuous knights. They banish him to seek redemption from the Pope in Rome.

Wagner's music reaches climactic heights while Tannhäuser lolls in the seductive Venusburg ritual, followed by the stately entrance of knights into the Festival Hall and later in the Pilgrim's Chorus escorting the wayward knight to make his penance.

The second opera, "Mary, Queen of Scots" by Donizetti, is a bel canto docudrama about two queens competing for the favors of the courtly and ambitious Earl of Leicester in 16th-century England. The winner is well known historically when Elizabeth I orders her cousin Mary to lose her head and stop a Scottish rebellion. Since Bess remains the Virgin Queen, her romantic conquest apparently had no future.

Donizetti wrote operas featuring sopranos with vocal skills to cope with dazzling coloratura voice ranges. Cast as Mary, Angela Gilbert, last heard here in 2006 as Donizetti's mad Lucia, has the right vocal skills. Equally talented mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich as Elizabeth brings credits from major European opera houses and New York's Met.

The revenge-murder duo of one-act operas, "Cavalleria Rusticana-Pagliacci" fills the third slot in the season. Both are tales about illicit love and betrayal that drive the jilted husbands into jealous acts of murder.

Tenor superstars Richard Leech and José Cura are in the double cast. Leech leads off as the lover in "Cav" who seduces a peasant girl then takes up with an old flame who is married to a tough teamster. In "Pag" Cura is a sad clown who discovers his actress wife is having an affair with a local boy. Both passionate husbands take their revenge in typical Sicilian tradition by wiping out the love triangle.

Verdi's popular classic "Aida" spins a splendid romance between a military hero and a captive slave who was a princess in her own land. Her royal rival seeks the captain's attention amid all the pomp and ceremony of the ancient Egyptian court and its military feats.

The political intrigue between the conqueror and the conquered comes between the secret lovers. They are exposed by the jilted Egyptian princess, who then bargains for the traitor's life in vain. He is sealed into a tomb where his true love has hidden to share his death sentence. They die quietly to Verdi's ethereal duet expressing eternal love.

Not all love opera triangles end in suicide, execution or violent murder. The final production of the season has a happy ending -- well, almost. "The Pearl Fishers" is a tale of two brotherly friends who secretly covet a beautiful priestess selected for a ritual sacrifice. One hero creates a diversion so his pal can escape with the girl. The angry mob takes its revenge on the hapless Good Samaritan, but the lovers live happily on in exile.

Some of Bizet's most melodic music defines the romantic triangle using exotic oriental themes matched by the stunning sets and costumes designed by Zandra Rhods. Last performed in 2004, the colorful San Diego Opera production was sold out.

Tickets for all performances in the 2008 season at the Civic Theatre are now available at (619) 533-7000 or sdopera.com.

Ford is a past president of the San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at San Diego Historical Society.

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