Opera Erratic

First, let's get this straight: There's nothing inherently boring about opera. As a form it's not passe, and as a medium of human thought and emotion, it's not condemned to take place in some inescapable 19th century of the spirit. Contemporary opera doesn't exist in spite of video, film and short attention spans; it exists along with those, and when it's canny, adjusts itself accordingly. A 21st century opera needs to impress us with the modernity of its perspective, regardless of when it's set. And if a scene in a contemporary opera feels repetitive, static and 20 minutes too long, that's not the fault an antiquated art form; that's a problem that needs to be addressed, for the audience's — and the artwork's — sake. Any discomfort viewers felt while watching Anton Coppola's Sacco & Vanzetti at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center last weekend should not lead to false assumptions about opera's lack of viability in the new century. The reasons S&V moves with such exasperating slowness are of the sort that theater artists have been dealing with for centuries: problems of narration, of simple storytelling. Maestro Coppola's music is usually gorgeous, always dramatic, and often "modern." But his libretto ignores so many rules of good storytelling that it's no wonder the three-and-three-quarter hours of the opera drag by as if in slow motion. To put it succinctly: In Sacco & Vanzetti, the music is often formidable; but the theater needs work. Much work.

Let's get to the good news: Coppola's music is lush and expansive, featuring orchestrations that are often so sumptuous, one might be forgiven for occasionally preferring them to the songs they support. The leads all have wonderful voices — tenor Jeffrey Springer as Nicola Sacco and baritone Emile Fath as Bartolomeo Vanzetti couldn't be better, and also outstanding in a superb cast are tenor Raul Melo as Ermanno Bianchini and the wonderful Hallie Neill as Luigia Vanzetti. The opera is visually spectacular from first moment to last. John Farrell's many sets — including a Boston church, an Anarchists Club and a two-cage prison — are sharply imagined and powerfully suggestive. Kathy Grillo's dozens of costumes are always delightful in their stylistic variety. Adding extra visual flair is the projection of relevant photographs and even part of a film onto a large scrim, as a supplement to the stage action. Finally, Matthew Lata's staging, though rooted in 19th century realism, is always capable and eye-pleasing.

In fact, the spectacle of S&V is such a complete success that it's possible to pass the first half-hour or so happily dazzled by the pageant, and only vaguely aware that the story on stage is taking a rather long time to get moving.

But then that half-hour passes, and you begin, ever so unwillingly, to realize that you're not feeling very involved in the tale. In the first few scenes, Coppola the librettist is quick to acquaint us with his two heroes' politics, but he leaves the matter of their personal lives — their capacity for love, their quirks, their recognizable humanness — pretty much unconsidered. After Sacco and Vanzetti are accused of robbery and murder, another problem emerges: Coppola refuses to take a stand on the duo's innocence or guilt, leaving our feelings about them tentative at best. There's yet another issue, felt most distressingly during the anarchists' trial: We know they'll be found guilty, we know they'll get the electric chair, but Coppola hasn't determined how, under the circumstances, to create suspense. The trial, as a result, is much too long, with the lawyers' copious summations especially tedious.

A series of relatively short scenes at the beginning of Act 2 — at the prison and in Rosina Sacco's kitchen — provides the most efficient drama and some of the most impressive singing of the whole evening. But then a meeting of Beacon Hill ladies begins, and even as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Katherine Anne Porter join in, we begin to realize that the scene, like several others, is inessential, that Coppola is treating events not as key pieces of a puzzle, but as interesting opportunities for his musicianship. The last half of Act 2 is all but theatrically null because we know in advance the result of Sacco & Vanzetti's appeals; and the long minutes before and after their deaths in the electric chair just add to our impatience. Yes, there are a few fine moments late in Act 2 — especially the brief, rapidly staged appearances of various celebrities, all supplicants for the duo's reprieve. And the orchestration that suggests the electrocution of the two anarchists is remarkably powerful. But when this work finally ends, it's not illumination we experience; it's relief that a story with amazingly little human interest and with virtually no suspense is finally over. We've learned nothing about Sacco and Vanzetti that we couldn't have picked up in an encyclopedia. And though we've heard some intelligent, hyperpassionate music, our own passions are curiously uninvolved, our intelligence strangely unaddressed.

Never Fear. The treasure can only be opened when you've faced your biggest fear.

That's the message of Imagine..., the Theatre for Families presentation currently showing at American Stage. And thanks to the persuasive performance of actor/writer Ian Beck, the message is illustrated so charmingly that even the most timid, night-frightened 6-year-old might manage to take courage from it. Yes, says the play, the world can be a scary place of mysterious sounds and evil shadows. But if you'll wrestle with your anxieties, you still might come out a winner. And you (not to mention your parents) just might get a good night's sleep.

At the center of Imagine is a journey that Madge E. Nation (Beck) takes with the help of kids in the audience. Using very few props, he builds a boat, becomes a pirate and sails the seas, looking for treasure. On dry land he finds a message that leads him to build a helicopter and then blast off for the moon in a rocket.

The whole thing takes about an hour, and to judge by the reaction at the performance I saw, it's a delight for small children. Stacy Pendergraft's direction (she also helped develop the script) is crisp and precise, making all of Madge's adventures easy to interpret, and G.B. Stevens' lighting is nicely effective in setting and changing moods.

This isn't a show for older kids — they'd be bored, if not insulted — but the tots in the audience were eating it up. Some even felt obligated to shout out warnings to old Madge when he wasn't quick enough to understand his predicament. And in a talkback after the show, a couple of children wanted to know just how deep that old toy chest really was.

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