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An encore for the maestro

Anton Coppola, buoyed by the debut of his opera Sacco & Vanzetti, sees his best possibility for a second production in Europe. He will conduct a concert of Verdi and Puccini music this weekend.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


Two months ago, Anton Coppola realized a dream when his opera Sacco & Vanzetti was premiered by Opera Tampa. A few days later, Coppola turned 84.

"I was exhilarated, I was gratified but not exhausted," Coppola said, recalling how he felt after conducting three performances. "Sunday afternoon (after the final performance), I was ready to do the opera again that evening."

For Coppola, a New Yorker who has conducted virtually every regional opera company in the United States in his long career, the premiere was the fruition of a near-lifelong fascination with a case that inflamed political passions during his childhood. He wrote both score and libretto for the opera about two Italian anarchists in Boston, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were tried for murder, convicted and -- after six years of appeals and protests -- electrocuted in 1927.

This weekend, Coppola returns to Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, home of Opera Tampa. He'll lead a vocal quartet -- Brenda Harris, soprano; Deidra Palmour, mezzo-soprano (anarchist Mary Donovan in Sacco & Vanzetti); Mark Rucker, baritone; Eduardo Villa, tenor -- a 45-voice chorus and orchestra in two concerts of selections from Verdi and Puccini operas.

Sacco & Vanzetti generated a good batch of reviews for Coppola and Opera Tampa by critics from the bay area, the rest of Florida and elsewhere.

"All credit to Opera Tampa for taking a big gamble on Coppola's opera and making it pay off so handsomely," wrote Lawrence A. Johnson in the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale.

Some critics faulted the derivative nature of Coppola's music, but the main complaint stemmed from the work's 31/2-hour length. Typical was William Littler's review in the Toronto Star, which called the score "needful of trimming."

"All the same," Littler continued, "his many years in the pit had obviously taught Coppola a thing or two about musical structure and dramatic pacing. For all its length, Sacco & Vanzetti told its tale coherently and sometimes movingly."

Coppola has given thought to cutting his opera, especially a second-act scene in which a governor's advisory committee debates the fairness of the trial.

"I know where I can cut a little bit here, use some liposuction there," he said. "I would probably cut out entirely that governor's council scene. At 14 minutes, that would be a sizable cut right there."

The premiere of an opera is one thing, with all the excitement that comes with a new work, but it is often difficult to find interest in a second production, especially of a work as large as Sacco & Vanzetti, which had a cast of 75. So far, Coppola said, the strongest interest in putting it on again has come from a company in Naples, Italy.

"It's more likely to happen in Europe," he said, "in Italy or someplace like Scandinavia, where they're more daring with their programming. We tend to be more conservative here. If only the managers of these American opera companies would have the chutzpah to bump off another traditional Traviata or Rigoletto and replace it with Sacco & Vanzetti, but that takes courage and the ability to convince their board of directors."

Coppola had hoped he might enlist his nephew, film director Francis Ford Coppola, to take up the cause, but the director, who attended a performance of the opera, is wrapped up in a project of his own.

"Francis was very complimentary, but I don't know if he can involve himself with anything regarding Sacco & Vanzetti," Anton said. "He's so involved in this brand new film called Megalopolis, which is about the Roman Empire transformed into contemporary American terms. It's been a dream of his for a long time."

Nevertheless, now that Sacco & Vanzetti has made its debut, the maestro is confident of getting another production.

"It's like a jar of olives," he said. "The first olive is hard to get out of the jar, but, once you get the first one out, the rest just spill out of the jar."

PREVIEW

Anton Coppola conducts soloists, chorus and orchestra in selections from operas by Verdi and Puccini. Concerts are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $9.50 to $55.50. (813) 229-7827 or (800) 955-1045.

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