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 "Florencia en el Amazonas" is an ambitious, exotic and appealing bit of opera, as easy to love as it is to suspect.

Composer Daniel Catan's work first appeared in 1996, but has little of the experimental flavor you might associate with the late 20th century. Instead, it is lush and melodic, with a score that surges and swells and a story that — in knowing, operatic tradition — sacrifices credulity to gain space for a few well-rendered arias.

The work is sometimes compared to the efforts of both Giacomo Puccini and Erich Korngold and while that seems generous, it's a good way to describe a piece that manages to be touching, amusing and highly manipulative within a tight two hours.

Opera Colorado, in an attractive production that debuted at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House Saturday, brings out the best of the work, a rare Spanish-language venture that veers into the realm of magical realism. This is a major effort for the company, with a budget of roughly $750,000, and it shows.

The whole evening is set on one small steam-powered riverboat as it carries a pack of troubled lovers down the Amazon River in the early 1900s. But the designers open it up, mostly with the help of giant moving images behind the singers. Waves ripple, clouds pass, a bird flies off, giant daisies bloom. The backdrop has a streaming, digital feel that makes it part-screensaver, part James Cameron movie.

It's rare to credit the good work of an opera's production team before the singers, but it's now or never: Sets by Phillip Lienau, projections by Aaron Rhyne, lighting by James D. Sale, all working under the no-dreams-barred direction of Jose Maria Condemi.

Just as rare would be to give a conductor his proper due for the success of an evening that is clearly a team effort. But Ramon Tebar with a down-sized crew of players, leads in a way that is rarely so clear, taming a score that could otherwise eat this work alive. He understands this music, knows when to let it swell and when to make it serve the singers.

For their part, the singers make the most of the opportunity. At the head of the pack, a strong and determined Pamela Armstrong, as Florencia Grimaldi, the aging opera singer cruising toward the lover she once left behind. Traveling at the same speed, Inna Dukach, as Rosalba, who sets sail writing a book about Florencia but finds her own love story, and Beth Clayton, as Paula, one-half of a troubled couple heading to hear Florencia in concert.

The men hold their own, too, including Colorado native Keith Miller, whose steady bass-baritone anchors the evening . His character, the mystical Riolobo, narrates the action, but also has the good fortune of appearing in mock flight, towering over the set as a storm rages at the end of Act 1. His prayer saves the ship and the opera, too, transforming this tale into something richer and more spiritual.

It's a hail Mary move from the former CU football player and this story needs it. Catan and librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain may have borrowed their characters from Gabriel Garcia-Marquez but there are equal parts Aaron Spelling in the mix. (C'mon Catan, three intertwined stories about mixed up romances on a cruise ship? It's 'The Love Boat." You half expect Charo to climb aboard.)

A more apt comparison to this work though, comes from Hollywood. With its female-centered melodrama and over-saturated sets, this production has the feel one of those tragic Douglas Sirk films from the 1950s. It could star Barbara Stanwyck or Lana Turner.

That's fitting. Catan indulges every emotion. So does the director. So does Charo.

"Florencia en el Amazonas" continues at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, with perfoamances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20-$150. Information at operacolorado.org or 800-982-2787.