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"Sacco & Vanzetti' makes a superb debut on the world's opera scene.

Sacco & Vanzetti is a monumental achievement, a big opera with a big theme. Yes, it has its share of problems, but Anton Coppola's opus is emotionally gripping and tells an important American story, set to a finely crafted musical collage.

Coppola's opera, about one of the towering political cases of the 20th century, premiered Friday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, marking a cultural milestone for the bay area.

The debut was a triumph for Coppola, who wrote the libretto, composed the score and conducted the Florida Orchestra in the pit. Coppola, who turns 84 on Wednesday, has got to be one of the most amazing beginners in musical history, considering that Sacco & Vanzetti is his first opera to be produced.

It also was a triumph for Opera Tampa, the outgrowth of a company formed by TBPAC only five years and seven operas ago. Coppola's opera about the two Italian-American anarchists who were convicted of murder and executed was superbly sung. The staging by director Matthew Lata was inventive and briskly done _ and needed to be, given the 3{-hour length of the performance, including intermission.

John Farrell's scenic design had some striking modernistic touches, such as the cages perched on scaffolding that hold Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the second act. Projections of vintage photography (sometimes a bit faint to make much impression) and footage from a 1971 Italian movie on the case filled out the set. Kathryn Grillo costumed a cast of 75, many in multiple roles, in authentic-looking period garb.

From a purely musical standpoint, Sacco & Vanzetti is a marvel of listenability, a hybrid of opera, Broadway musicals and Hollywood movie scores (no coincidence, perhaps, given the composer/conductor's occasional forays into film projects with his famous nephew, director Francis Ford Coppola, who attended Saturday's performance).

In a time when many contemporary operas eschew melody, Coppola's is a throwback. The score is stuffed with richly romantic arias, notably those of tenor Jeffrey Springer's Sacco. Vanzetti is a baritone role in the Verdi tradition, and Emile Fath delivered powerful, if long-winded, hymns to working-class solidarity.

The opera even has a potential hit tune, a Neapolitan-style ballad called Antico Amor, rendered by tenor Raul Melo, playing Ermanno Bianchini, a childhood sweetheart of Sacco's wife. If Andrea Bocelli records the song _ and he should _ Coppola will rake in royalties.

Sacco & Vanzetti is at its most effective when it deals with basic human character and emotion. Soprano Faith Esham gives a passionate performance as Rosina Sacco, trying to hold her family together with her husband in prison. Baritone Vernon Hartman brings comic flair to defense attorney Fred Moore, the flamboyant Californian who turned the case into a cause celebre. Soprano Hallie Neill, as Vanzetti's sister, Luigia, sings a lovely Ave Maria.

The libretto is innovative in its bilingualism, with Italian characters using their native language, but it bogs down when Coppola seeks to depict the sociopolitical significance of the case. He seems overly wedded to minutiae. He also falls prey to an odd fixation with celebrity name-dropping.

A second-act scene, chronicling a governor's advisory committee, brings the dramatic momentum to a halt. Worse, it takes on a tone of civics-class earnestness, with a mawkish sequence of cameo appearances by Felix Frankfurter, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and other intellectuals who protested the verdict.

The previous scene, a 1920s version of radical chic with a get-together of liberal ladies in Boston, has a charming foxtrot theme but goes on too long, partly for the sake of working in famous supporters such as novelist Katherine Anne Porter and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Coppola saddles a few roles with ungainly lyrics from the historical record, such as the eulogy over Sacco and Vanzetti's coffins that brings down the curtain, an intense performance by mezzo-soprano Deidra Palmour as anarchist firebrand Mary Donovan. The role of Carlo Tresca, an anarchist leader and narrator of the opera, sung by Theodore Lambrinos, is more workmanlike than lyrical.

The opera rescues from the annals of kitsch the much-maligned accordion, placing one in the pit and one in an Italian band onstage. Coppola's use of the accordion _ along with violins and mandolin _ creates an alluring sound texture in the intermezzo during jury deliberations.

Sacco & Vanzetti is full of deft quotations from the standard operatic repertoire. The narrative function of Tresca is reminiscent, in the Prologue, of Tonio appearing in front of the curtain before Pagliacci. The climax of Act I when Sacco and Vanzetti are found guilty and sentenced to death is not unlike a scene in Andrea Chenier.

After today's final performance in Tampa, Sacco & Vanzetti faces an uncertain future, given the rarity of new operas getting a second production. Other companies are interested in Coppola's work, but the size of the cast _ including more than 20 principals _ makes it a risk in the ultraconservative world of opera.

But Coppola's opera also has plenty going for it. Perhaps most important, it has a deeply felt point of view about issues that still loom over society: immigration, individual rights, the power of the state, the death penalty. Coppola brings a stubborn, singular vision to his subject, and no opera succeeds without that.