STAFF PICK: Arizona Opera is slowly becoming Maricopa Opera, as the decision-making process follows the money to the home of the newish director, David Speers. The much ballyhooed progressive changes and improvements have been marginal at best, and the card looks about as familiar as it always did, primarily filled with the old warhorses that people want and will pay to see. Which ain't all bad. Arizona Opera progresses gradually, as it did under the era of the legendary Glynn Ross. We get five operas a year now and have since the last year of Ross' tenure. The orchestra and chorus are marginally better, the support staff (while a tad heavy in Speer's fellow Canadians) is more competent and the all-important part--the singing--has hardly declined in quality. The card has hardly grown radical--last year featured Carmen, The Barber of Seville and one each by the other three members of the Italian big four, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. But the three operas chosen from them showed some imagination with Daughter of the Regiment, Don Carlo and Girl of the Golden West instead of their better-known efforts. The performance of the Puccini adaptation of the David Belasco play was one of the finest in the roll call of Arizona Opera, nosing out an excellent Don Carlo. We look forward to next year's group including Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, The Merry Widow and one that strikes us as a gutsy shot for Arizona--Poulenc's dramatic and tragic Dialogues of the Carmelites. What makes it so daring is that it's actually a modern opera, only dating back to 1956. It will also be the second opera recently presented here that closes with a scene involving a guillotine.