Anton Coppola doesn't mince words when it comes to the libretto of Franz Lehar's classic operetta The Merry Widow. "It's ridiculous. It's absurd. It's impossible,'' Coppola says. "But I dearly love the score. Nobody has written music like that but Lehar. Not even Puccini. But it's draped around a ridiculous and absurd story.''
Unlike many an operagoer who might share his opinion, Coppola is in a position to do something about problems with The Merry Widow, which premiered in Vienna in 1905 with a book and lyrics by Viktor Leon and Leo Stein. Coppola, the conductor and artistic director of Opera Tampa, has written a new adaptation of the operetta, which opens the company's season this week with three performances.
"I didn't touch one note of the score, because to me, the score is immortal,'' he says. "But I rewrote the dialogue, I rewrote all the lyrics, and I fudged around a little bit with the details of the plot.''
Coppola's impatience with the story that propels Lehar's musical bonbon is understandable. Set in Paris, it recounts the efforts of Baron Zeta, ambassador of the fictional Balkan state of Lower Slobbovia, to persuade his aide, Count Danilo, to marry the rich widow Anna Koronova so as to inject her millions into the country's tanking economy.
The Opera Tampa maestro is far from the first person to rework The Merry Widow, which has been a remarkably adaptive property over the years, with various versions that change the names of characters and the settings. There were half a dozen productions on Broadway, most recently in 1943. Hollywood took Lehar's operetta on, most notably in the Ernest Lubitsch-directed classic with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier in 1934. Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas starred in a 1952 movie in which the widow was an American.
Rochelle Bard plays the title role for Opera Tampa (as she did in 2009 for St. Petersburg Opera), which is presenting the operetta not in its usual venue at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Morsani Hall, but in the smaller Ferguson Hall, with seating of about 1,000. The company performed a Puccini double bill of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi to good effect in Ferguson in 2009.
Coppola's penchant for adaptation — he has also done some reworking of two Puccini operas, rewriting an aria for La Rondine and completely revising Edgar — is the product of a long career as a conductor (he is 93) and composer (Sacco and Vanzetti, premiered by Opera Tampa in 2001). He started work on his version of The Merry Widow last April and sent it to singers before rehearsals began.
"I don't use a computer, so I did my score in pen and ink,'' Coppola says. 'Sometimes the singers would call me to ask questions about a word or two because my writing was not very clear.''
The revision cuts the operetta from three to two acts, and it does away entirely with at least one subplot and sizable chunks of dialogue.
"There's a lot of nonsensical dialogue that I've never been able to digest,'' says Coppola, who has conducted many productions of the operetta. "I decided once and for all to do something about it. For instance, when they discuss the financial problems of this mythical kingdom, they go on and on, and there's no reason to do more than just touch upon it. As long as the audience understands what the motivations are, you don't have to go into detailed explanation.''
Coppola has also added a divertissement in Act 2 that includes selections from other Lehar operettas and an accordion solo by Nina Wegman.
For musical theater fans, it is always interesting to hear the score of a classic Viennese operetta such as The Merry Widow, which paved the way for Broadway classics like Show Boat.
"It's a continuous line from Central Europe to Broadway,'' Coppola says. "The operettas of Vienna and Paris got transplanted to Gilbert and Sullivan in England and then across the ocean to America, where Victor Herbert's operettas became popular, and they influenced Jerome Kern and Show Boat, which went into Rodgers and Hammerstein, which spawned Stephen Sondheim.''
The Merry Widow has performances (in English) at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Nov. 14 at Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center. $69.50-$89.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.
Opera and popcorn
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko stars as Norina in Donizetti's comic romance Don Pasquale, with James Levine conducting, in the latest Metropolitan Opera production to be beamed into movie theaters live in high definition at 1 p.m. Saturday. At least five theaters in the Tampa Bay area and Sarasota carry the simulcasts. Some also screen encores, which is Mussorgsky's Boris Gudunov on Wednesday. See fathomevents.com for details. Prices vary, with a top ticket of $24.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.