Anton Coppola, "Sacco and Vanzetti", opera. A Press Comment

VANZETTI, Bartolomeo (1888-1927)SACCO, Nicola (1891-1927)Music. OperaMusic. Musical creationsCOPPOLA, Anton (Antonio) (21/03/1917+)

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Opera News, July/Aug. 2001

The Protest Movement.
Performance of "Sacco and Vanzetti", opera by Anton COPPOLA.

Nearly one hundred people - including a cast of two-dozen singers, large chorus, extras and production personnel - crowded on the vast stage of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center at the conclusion of Anton Coppola’s opera Sacco & Vanzetti; there was barely enough room for the composer to take a bow.

Find room they did, and justifiably so. The world premiere (March 17) was a triumph for the eighty-three-year-old Coppola, who conducted the performance, more than three hours long, with remarkable vigor and commitment. Uncle of film director Francis Ford Coppola (who signed on to the production as artistic adviser), the composer received a resounding extended ovation from the packed house of 2,400.

Though time and recent, nationally televised trials have faded its renown, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti fascinated the nation for decades. In 1920, two men committed a daring daytime robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in which a shoe company’s paymaster and his guard were both shot to death. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants, were arrested for the crime. Both were fervent Anarchists. Under questioning, they lied about their political sympathies and whereabouts; those lies, along with circumstantial evidence, led to their convictions and the death sentence. Publicized relentlessly by their attorney Fred Moore, the case became a cause clbre among artists, writers and activists of the political Left, who believed the men were condemned less on evidence than on their unpopular radical politics and immigrant status. Despite appeals for clemency and widespread demonstrations, Sacco and Vanzetti were both executed in 1927. Coppola indulges in some hoary rhetorical red flag-waving in the program book and in the early scenes, but radical-chic politics, happily, take a back seat to the fascinating story and music. The ghost of infamous Anarchist Carlo Tresca, in a white fedora, suit and long coat, functions as narrator and ironic observer of the unfolding action. A prologue depicts successive church congregations reacting hypocritically to waves of first Irish, then Italian immigrants; it’s heavy-handed, but the opera soon finds its footing. Coppola crafts dramatic scenes of Sacco and Vanzetti’s daily lives, with fine arias for both leading roles. Large period photographs of street scenes and the real Sacco and Vanzetti are employed, with a grainy projected film showing a dramatization of the actual crime. Coppola depicts at length the trial, the men’s long incarceration and the effects on their families and on American society. This will likely stand for a long time as the only opera offering solo arias for both Justice Felix Frankfurter and Katherine Anne Porter.

Coppola’s canvas is large, but his opera remains undeniably compelling throughout its length. Some in the audience complained that Act II dragged, but in general, momentum was skillfully sustained. (Only the scene depicting writers at a soiree seemed to go on too long, though it did nicely illustrate the hypocrisy of some literary types who defended the duo.) The Opera is full of memorable moments, such the impromptu singing and dancing in a caf scene, or the extended multi-part singing, handled with great flair, in the courtroom. Accompanied by loud orchestral chords, the street demonstrations, counter-demonstrations and nerve-wracking buildup to the men’s offstage executions in the final scene made an especially vivid impact.

The composer’s long experience in the opera pit shows in a highly accessible musical style, with lyrical and attractive arias and ensembles. Puccini and Barber lurk in the foreground, and Coppola’s music often reflects Italian popular song and romanzas, which dovetail with the milieu and protagonists. One could easily see such set pieces as Sacco’s Act II prison aria for his wife being made into a hit by Andrea Bocelli. If Sacco & Vanzetti has a fault, it is that Coppola’s music and lyrics lack an individual voice. At times, solo arias seem closer to Broadway than to the opera house; one too many items end on a shimmering, major-key cadence. Even so, the opera is snappily orchestrated, and Coppola varies the music and pace nicely throughout the two acts. The transition between popular and operatic styles is made with the same ease as the language switching between English and Italian - much more deftly than John Harbison traversed the similar chasm in The Great Gatsby.

Although his grainy tenor was strained at times by the high tessitura, Jeffrey Springer (Sacco) acted convincingly and sang ardently. As Vanzetti, Emile Fath sang with great power and dramatic force. His rich, dark baritone was as striking as his physical resemblance to the condemned anarchist. Fath inhabited the character completely, from the slightly stooped, heavy peasant tread to the later, ennobled dignity of the bespectacled Vanzetti, writing letters in prison.

In the large supporting cast, many singers took multiple parts. Vernon Hartman was especially memorable as the arrogant attorney, Moore. Asked what he will do when the convicted men fire him off the case, Moore segues into a brief, brassy verse of "California, Here I Come," a rare light moment. Theodore Lambrinos (Tresca), Faith Esham (Sacco’s wife, Rosina) and the rest filled their roles with distinction.

Keeping the fourteen short scenes moving with fine dramatic momentum, stage director Matthew Lata never let tension drop. Crowd scenes, dancing and demonstrations offered a virtual seminar in how to handle large numbers of extras onstage. John Farrell’s scenic design presented stunning images, including the two men caged in a pair of high, square, stainless-steel prison cells .

For a fledgling company, only five years in existence, to mount such a lavish production of a new opera was a bold and ambitious move. All credit to Opera Tampa for taking a big gamble and making it pay off so well. Sacco & Vanzetti may turn out to be the operatic sleeper of recent years and come to enjoy a greater shelf life than other works launched with much greater fanfare. The resources required may discourage other companies from picking up the opera. But Coppola’s attractive, compelling work merits wider advocacy."