Mario Lanza: The Toast of Hollywood = A Tenor at the Movies; A Tenor in Love – Mario Lanza, tenor/ Ray Sinatra/ Constantine Callinicos – TCM Masterworks (2 CDs)

by | Nov 12, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Mario Lanza: The Toast of Hollywood = A Tenor at the Movies; A Tenor in Love – Mario Lanza, tenor/ Ray Sinatra/ Constantine Callinicos – TCM Masterworks 88883 74163 2 (2 CDs) 49:51, 40:22 [Distr. by Sony] ****:

Mario Lanza (nee, Alfred Arnold Cocozza, 1921-1959) offers another tale of an extraordinarily gifted musical artist, who through misdeeds and some willful neglect, died tragically young.  Often deemed a natural successor to the legendary Enrico Caruso, the Philadelphia-born Lanza (the name taken from his mother’s maiden name) seemed intended for a “purely” operatic career, having made a debut at Tanglewood and immediately winning recognition and sponsorship from Serge Koussevitzky. In 1947, Lanza appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, capturing the attention of producer Louis B. Mayer, who signed Lanza to a seven-year contract for MGM.

Lanza’s first two starring films, That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans, both opposite top-billed Kathryn Grayson, were commercial successes, and in 1950 his recording of “Be My Love” from the latter became the first of three million-selling singles for the young singer, earning him enormous fame in the process. While at MGM, Lanza worked closely with the Academy Award-winning conductor, composer, and arranger Johnny Green. In a 1977 interview with Lanza biographer Armando Cesari, Green recalled that the tenor was insecure about the manner in which he had become successful, and was keenly aware of the fact that he had become a Hollywood star before first having established himself on the operatic stage.

“Had [Lanza] been already a leading tenor, if not the leading tenor at the Met[ropolitan Opera House], and come to Hollywood in between seasons to make a picture, he would have had [the security of having] the Met as his home,” Green remarked. According to Green, Lanza possessed “the voice of the next Caruso. [Lanza] had an unusual, very unusual quality…a tenor with a baritone color in the middle and lower registers, and a great feeling for the making of music. A great musicality. I found it fascinating, musically, to work with [him].”

Lanza’s film appearances proved influential on any number of future artists: Lanza has been credited with inspiring successive generations of other opera singers, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and José Carreras. Singers with seemingly different backgrounds and influences were also inspired by him, even including his RCA Victor label-mate Elvis Presley. Upon his untimely death, Frank Sinatra sent his condolences to the family via telegram. The Lanza “downfall” has been attributed to several factors, including alcoholism, over-eating and crash-dieting, heart failure, hypertension, a blood clot, and a voracious ambition that lurked behind a captivating smile that often proved too burdensome for colleagues to tolerate.

TCM assembles 30 cuts (out of a legacy of over 400) derived from film and TV studio appearances, 1949-1957, each displaying Lanza’s glowing voice – often in super-hyped accompaniments lit by the excess of Hollywood vocal glamour – in which Lanza demonstrates how his lirico-spinto voice could emulate the likes of Tauber, Wunderlich, Caruso, and Bjoerling in their respective repertory even while Lanza courted movie-star status. “Be My Love,” of course, dominates the 1950 The Toast of New Orleans, the musical direction under Ray Sinatra. Lanza’s perfect diction, subtle rhythmic pulse, and controlled dynamics certainly prove his musicality. In “Granada” (from Because You’re Mine, 1949, from Republic Studios) Lanza provides a model for the high-energy Fritz Wunderlich.  That Lanza “belonged” in the opera world has ample testimony in two arias each from Verdi, Romberg and Puccini. He teams with soprano Elaine Malbin for “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from La Traviata in marvelous duet. “La donna e mobile” effectively conveys the young Duke’s estimation of fickle woman from Rigoletto. Singing in English, Lanza delivers a pleasing account of “Serenade” from Romberg’s The Student Prince from the eponymous film for MGM, 1952. His “Drink, Drink, Drink” from the same film bounces with healthy comeraderie.  The two arias from Puccini, “Che gelida manina”and “E lucevan le stelle,” from La Boheme and Tosca, respectively, (from The Great Caruso), combine lyric power and sincere characterization. That listeners favorably compare his Tosca aria with any rendition by Bjoerling or Di Stefano should surprise no connoisseur of fine singing.

A real moment, large but without undue sentimentality, Lanza’s “Ave Maria” from The Great Caruso (1950) with violin obbligato Eudice Shapiro (conducted by Callinicos) is sung devotionally. Recorded for his own The Mario Lanza Show (1951) the Neapolitan-style “Lolita” (previously unreleased from Seven Hills of Rome) suffers some Hollywood inflation, but Lanza’s tessitura into baritone land testifies to his spinto endurance and facile range. In the same vein “Arrivederci Roma” (also from Seven Hills of Rome, 1957) moves elegantly via Italian and English, the long-held notes and slick dynamics in luscious abundance. “Romance,” as Lanza states in his brief introduction for his The Mario Lanza Show, 1952, summarizes his own philosophy of song. Despite the critics who upbraided his leaving the opera stage for the Hollywood stage, Lanza remained convinced that the service of good music had not been compromised. Listen to Lanza’s devotional version of Grieg’s “I Love Thee” (1951, previously unreleased and on Disc 2) for his radio show, and consider how favorably his vocal stamina compares with Bjoerling and Lanza’s own idol, Caruso.

Five previously unreleased cuts grace Disc 2, all led by a sympathetic Ray Sinatra: “Day in, Day Out” by Johnny Mercer demonstrates in a spectacular way what Lanza could do on a Broadway stage. The Tosti art song, “’A vucchella” (1951), throbs with facile grace and eroticism. “For You Alone” (from The Mario Lanza Show, 1951) places a Richard Crooks favorite in the hands of a master who loves sentiment “in a sentimental season.” Lanza’s “I’ll Never Love You” (1951, for The Mario Lanza Show) derives from The Toast of New Orleans, and it illustrates his ease of silky-diction rubato. Lanza offers two Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites: “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk alone,” both from Carousel. Seductive even in their sentimental simplicity, the renditions make us weep for the singer he might yet have evolved to be. From Show Boat, the Kern-Hammerstein classic, Lanza delivers a seamless “Make Believe” (1951) for his radio program. “My Romance” (1951) derives from a Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart collaboration, Billy Rose’s Jumbo, whose orchestral set approaches the beauty we have in Fenton’s aria (“Horst die Lerche singt in Haim”) in Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

With “Alone Together” (1952), the song by Arthur Schwartz, we conclude a rich set of recordings that testify to a singer of remarkable durability and versatility, too often discounted for having “sold out” his “real” talent for commercial success. Biographer Derek McGovern states the case clearly:

Although, perversely, Lanza’s versatility has often been held against him, it would be difficult to find another singer as convincing
in so many different forms. As Enrico Caruso, Jr. observed, “Let it not be forgotten that Mario Lanza excelled in the light
classical repertory, an accomplishment that was beyond even my father’s exceptional talents.”

—Gary Lemco

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