COPPOLA

Among the many good reasons for looking in on the latest chapter in the ongoing family picnic known as “The Godfather,” musical matters rank high. Even in the two previous episodes the surge and onrush of events always seem to foreshadow some as-yet-unwritten violent musical melodrama from the hand of a Puccini or Mascagni. In “Godfather 3” that unwritten opera gets written, as the red-hot measures of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” counterpoint the horrific bloodbath that brings Francis Ford Coppola’s chronicle to its smoky conclusion. These scenes from “Cavalleria” are shown as taking place at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, as Tony Corleone, son of Michael, makes his operatic debut as the lead tenor, the hapless Turiddu who gets knifed by a jealous husband for his amorous escapades. Never mind that no untried tenor in real life gets a debut at the prestigious Massimo as anything more than a stage extra. Never mind also that, in order to interlock with the action of the offstage drama, Mascagni’s little opera has been chopped up and reassembled with opening and closing scenes reversed. ”We had to do it,” was Carmine Coppola’s simple explanation. “Otherwise it wouldn’t work.” The “Godfather” trilogy’s composer, arranger, conductor and cultural conscience-without-portfolio; father of Francis, who directed, and Talia, who played Michael’s sister; grandfather of Sofia, who played Michael’s daughter; brother of Anton, who conducted the operatic scenes: the elder Coppola himself serves as head-of-family to the whole filmed chronicle, and has from the start. Surging headlong into a pastrami-on-rye at a deli not far from his home “in the low-rent part of Woodland Hills,” Godfather Coppola seemed happy with his many roles. Record collectors past a certain age know, of course, yet another Coppola: Piero, a prodigal composer and conductor who flourished around 1930 and who himself came from a long line of singers and instrumentalists. “I got a letter from his widow once, asking if we were related, but I don’t know,” Coppola said. “The name is common all over Italy. I was in Milan once, and I saw a Banco Coppola so I went in and introduced myself. They still wouldn’t cash a check.” Carmine Coppola turned 80 last June. He, too, got to appear in “The Godfather, Part III”; you can see him leading the Italian folk band in the party scene. You can also see him as he was 40 years ago, in the videos of Arturo Toscanini telecasts with the NBC Symphony recently reissued by RCA. There he sits in the first flutist’s chair, playing his magic flute in, for example, Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs,” a diminutive fellow with hair slicked back. When RCA gets around to reissuing Toscanini’s audio recording of Act Two of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” you’ll hear Coppola in the long flute solo in the ballet music. ”My father fell in love with the flute while he was in the Italian army,” Coppola reminisced. “He was stationed at Forli, near Rimini, and there was a small opera in the town. He went to “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and after the flute solo in the Mad Scene he resolved that if he had a son he’d make sure that the boy got flute lessons. He married, and moved to New York, and after I was born (June 11, 1910) he made good on his vow.” After graduating the Juilliard School, young Carmine got a job in Hartford. “Radio stations had their own orchestras in the 1930s, and I got a job at WTIC. From there I went to the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. Of course I didn’t know then that I’d be back there some day, conducting my own music for the the silent movie of “Napoleon.” How’d you like the music for that? Pretty romantic, huh?” By the time Toscanini and NBC beckoned, Coppola had moved on to Detroit, where he played in the Detroit Symphony and was also on coast-to-coast radio as flutist in the weekly “Ford Sunday Evening Hour.” His second child, Francis, was born at Ford Hospital during the Detroit stint — just in case you’re wondering where his middle name comes from. Carmine Coppola remained with Toscanini for nine years. If you have the pirate recording of Toscanini rehearsing “La Traviata,” youll hear the conductor arguing with soprano Licia Albanaes. “Listen to Coppola,” the old man is screaming. “He play it right. You no sing it right.” ”I used to tell Toscanini that I wanted to conduct,” Coppola went on. “He’d argue with me: “Why you want conduct when you play flute so good?” “But you were a cellist,” I’d say, “Yes” he said, “but I wasn’t a good cellist.” Showbiz beckoned, and Coppola followed his conducting ambition as music director for David Merrick productions, easing his Italian conscience now and then by conducting operas at the Brooklyn Academy. “Horrible, one rehearsal, maybe even less. But fun. ”I was conducting “Half a Sixpence” on Broadway when Francis called from Hollwyood. He’d been assigned to direct a musical — “Finian’s Rainbow,” it ended up a flop — and he needed me. Well, you know the rest.” Coppola worked on several major films, both as composer and arranger. “Victor Young asked me to rescore the aria from “Pagliacci” for Lauritz Melchior. Now Leoncavallo did a pretty good job of orchestrating that aria himself; no, Young had to have something bigger for the movies. That’s the way things sometimes worked” Then Francis saw a revival of the Douglas Fairbanks “Thief of Bagdad,” a silent film with a new score played by a live orchestra. He decided to try the same with the legendary Abel Gance “Napoleon,” with Carmine pulling together a score part-original part-pastiche, with legendary results. That, too, has been Carmine’s role in “The Godfather” films, pulling together the major themes created by the late Nino Rota, adding others of his own as needed, bringing in repertory pieces to fill out the atmosphere. “The Godfather III” is a veritable musical panorama, with a grand religious chorus by Carmine, a band version of the famous chorus from Verdi’s “Nabucco,” a beautiful setting for guitar of Rota’s archetypal “Godfather Theme,” and, of course, the climactic “Cavalleria Rusticana.” JON: SHOULD THE NEXT TWO GRAFS MAYBE GO IN A BOX? [F/L] Typical of the Coppolas’ respect for dramatic verities, they decided early on not to cast Anthony Corleone merely as a pretty Sicilian face with a dubbed-in tenor, but to find a real tenor who could also pass as a Corleone. Franc D’Ambrosio, the 28-year-old Long Islander, was chosen after an extensive talent search. “didn’t even know I could sing until my teens,” he stated in a recent telephone conversation. Trained at Hartford’s Hartt College and also at the Accademia Vocale at Lucca, D”Ambrosio had never done any more than classroom short scenes when he found himself tapped for the role — and for a reported
$350,000, which no tenor has ever pulled down for singing “Cavalleria Rusticana,” or anything else, in an opera house. ”It was an unbelievable experience,” D’Ambrosio said. “I never saw myself as a “Cavalleria” tenor; I hear myself more as a light tenor for, say, “Barber of Seville.” But Beppe di Tomasi, who staged the opera scenes for the movie, was really impressed with me. He told people that he could help me technically, but that I had a sensitivity that nobody could touch.” Supertenor Luciano Pavarotti agreed. After hearing D’Ambrosio he invited the young singer to his home in Pesaro. “He was also most encouraging,” D’Ambrosio reported. JON: SHOULD THOSE LAST TWO GRAFS GO IN A BOX ? [F/L] Even in its mangled form, “Cavalleria” seems headed for the charts — not that it has ever been far away. It won’t do Franc D’Ambrosio any harm, either, although he says he’s now looking at movie scripts rather than opera contracts. Carmine Coppola chortled over the notion of a raw tenor making his debut in such a killer role. “Nice voice, gotta mature,” was his one-line review. ”We didn’t change any of the music in the opera,” Coppola continued. “We just put some of it in different places.I told Francis I’d be willing to conduct the opera myself. After all, I’ve done it before, and it’s a pretty square score. But Francis thought it would be nice to bring Anton in on the project. “You’ve got enough to do,” he told me. ”One thing I want you to understand,” said Carmine Coppola at the end of his sandwich and his interview. “Sure, there are a couple of Coppolas on these projects, but it’s not because we’re related. There’s absolutely no nepotism in any of Francis’ decisions. When we work together, it’s strictly as composer and director, never as father and son.”