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Mario Lanza's Greatest Performances at MGM
Robert G. Ingersoll, the great American freethinker, said that of the love-music in Tristan & Isolde in the 19th century. He might have been speaking of Mario Lanza in the 20th. The first - and I most fervently hope not the last - Rhino Movie Music CD of hitherto unreleased material from Mario's movies is a heart-stopping succession of winged notes, born of love, commanded to rise & poise by the eagle's own awareness of the imminence of death. "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth."
Heart-stopping because, in effect, we are hearing these recordings for the first time - even though we've heard them all (or most of them - more about that later) before. We are hearing them without the visual distractions, the cutaways, the overlaid dialogue, the extraneous sound effects, etc., of the movie screen; hearing them purely as recordings. And even though the technical quality of the reproductions does not come close to that achieved by BMG in its recent releases, the first effects of "Mario Lanza's Greatest Performances At MGM" are devastating. This reviewer fast-forwarded straight to Celeste Aida & Vesti la Giubba and by the end of the Pagliacci was a gibbering wreck.
But let's begin at the beginning.
From That Midnight Kiss we get They Didn't Believe Me and Love Is Music, both duets with Kathryn Grayson. Mario displays his ability to sweet-croon with the best of them, but his blazing fortissimi are pushed into the background as soon as the pressure goes on. And this is not the authentic, pristine recording - it is overlaid with applause. Still, a pleasant foretaste of pleasures to come.
The Tina Lina from The Toast of New Orleans is still only a tease, and an ill-judged one at that. Too much Mario-less time as the orchestra performs for dancers whom we can't see. Again, one can sense sound technicians, terrified of their metre-indicators flicking "into the red," winding back Mario's high notes into near-oblivion.
The mandatory Be My Love follows. Good to get it out of the way early on.
I'll Never Love You is interesting. An unmemorable song redeemed by one of Mario's unique stocks-in-trade - the ability to redeem unmemorable songs! The recording quality is much better than the other TONO material, too.
With the Butterfly duet with Grayson that follows, one starts to sit up & take notice. Lanza's performance is indeed crude & unpolished, in the words of Richard Hageman in the movie, and not nearly as good as his live performance of it with Frances Yeend at the Hollywood Bowl two years earlier - but it definitely gets the juices flowing.
Then the action really begins. Celeste Aida from The Great Caruso. But wait. What's this? The recitative is the one we're all familiar with - then begins a completely different performance of the aria (i.e. from the words "Celeste Aida" on). What juggling of takes has gone on here?! Never mind - this is unquestionably a better performance than the one actually used in the movie! The vocal line is better, the portamenti, though naughty, are well executed, and the stunning penultimate B-flat on the first syllable of "ergente" is on its own worth getting the CD for! It's as if Mario got that note out before the panicky sound technicians could reach their goddamn knobs! The final B-flat is not as long as the one in the movie version, but it's real. And beautiful. The movie one is fake - spliced - and spoiled by the resultant clicks.
Ave Maria. Critical faculties are starting to dissemble now. This surging rendition, with the underpinning Bach Prelude more audible than before, just sweeps all before it. (And the boy soprano was a girl?!)
The Sextet from Lucia. The biggest disappointment on the album. Muffled by lashings of cotton wool, with Mario pushed so far back that at one moment his contribution, clearly audible on the movie soundtrack, is inaudible on this CD. What happened??!!
La Donna E Mobile. The path to ecstasy is rejoined. Again, a different and better take from that used in the movie! Why didn't they use this one?! So cheeky, and performed without the glottal stops of the movie version. The cadenza is wonderful, and the final, dead-on-pitch B-natural is all the more effective for being clipped, in perfect sync with the orchestra. Bravo!
Vesti La Giubba. Now we enter Kleenex territory. Yet again, a different take from the one used in the movie, and the most moving 'Vesti' I have ever heard. It's just brilliant. Vocally darker than the movie take, it has touches of sheer genius - the truncated laugh, and the long pause that follows, before the words "Tu sei pagliaccio"; the bitter irony in the way Mario almost speaks the words, "e ognun ... applaudira" (and everyone will applaud); the really believable sob after "ridi del duol ...' (laugh at the pain); and his usual declamatory conclusion, beautifully executed ... here are Ingersoll's winged notes writ large, rising & poising.
After such soul-wrenching stuff, one needs some light relief, which comes in the form of Because You're Mine. In the tracks from this movie the dynamic variation is especially startling. The title song, a duet with Doretta Morrow, is no exception.
All The Things You Are is next - not used in the movie, and one can only wonder, why? It's gorgeous.
Granada. What can one say? Watch Domingo or Carreras attempt it, straining & squeezing & hooting & bleating - and in a lower key!! - and thank God for Mario.
Addio Alla Madre. The second biggest disappointment on the CD. Mario's voice production is uncharacteristically constricted here, and again he is pushed too far back. Not a patch on his Coke rendering of this aria, but nice to have it in its entirety.
The Lord's Prayer. Back to the Kleenex! Reproduced as recorded, with organ only - no orchestra or chorus overlaid - this leaves one dumb-struck. The climax is quintessential Mario. "For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever, amen." These are words one feels like addressing to him after he has sung them.
A reprise of Because You're Mine - another opportunity to mop up - and we move finally to The Student Prince.
Serenade. Graced by a lengthy orchestral introduction, this is as good as you'll ever hear it, notwithstanding a peculiar drop-off in level in the middle section. All the magic we first experienced in the cinema is recaptured, and Mario's final B-flats ring out in a glory not captured by RCA or BMG.
Deep In My Heart Dear. Nice.
Beloved. So this is it! The notorious, "over-emotional" take that had Germanic director Curtis Bernhardt all of a splutter, and brought the singer himself to orgasm, if one of his biographers is to be believed. Well, thank you Curtis Bernhardt, I say! His insistence on a retake gave us one of Mario's finest - perhaps his very finest - recording of an English-language song. This hitherto suppressed one would do if we didn't have the retake - it will do anyway - but the retake was definitely an improvement. Smoother, subtler. However, in its searing, erratic brilliance, this rejected take is a fitting finale to a CD devoted to a vocal comet that lit up the heavens all too briefly.
Bravo, Rhino! May you liberate more of this comet's afterglow very soon.
Post Script. The above was written after just a couple of hearings. Having listened to the Rhino CD extensively since then, I think I did not praise it highly enough. Even allowing for the shortcomings mentioned, it beautifully recaptures an ethos that we will probably never see again - the benevolent, life-affirming fantasy-world of MGM in the '50s, before the mandatory, plotless car-chases, infernos, alien invasions, bullets & bombs and four-letter words, the utter mindlessness & wilful ugliness, of today's movie culture. As much as it reminds us of the glory of the comet that was Mario, it conjures up a different, better universe.
I am now persuaded that the takes of Cavalleria & Butterfly are also different from those used in the movies (Cav is the same for about the last third), as is the duet with Ann Blyth in Deep In My Heart Dear. It would seem there are takes galore to choose from - can we persuade Rhino eventually to release every take of everything??!!
The stand-out numbers remain, in my opinion, Celeste Aida, Ave Maria, La Donna E Mobile, Vesti La Giubba, All The Things You Are and The Lord's Prayer, with Granada high on the "seconds" list. A magic moment I didn't mention in the review - the glorious transition from full throttle on the third-last note of All The Things You Are to melting softness on the penultimate & last notes. No one but Mario could do that. There are delightful touches of it in Celeste Aida as well. I believe more strongly than ever that the final take of Beloved is FAR superior to the rejected one on this CD. The latter is a great gut-wrencher to be sure, especially after a vino or three, but the former achieves the same effect much more intelligently & musically.
One thing I omitted to mention - how gorgeously packaged the CD is, with superb photos & detailed information (BMG please note!). Rhino have really gone the extra mile in every respect, and I take this opportunity to say an extra Bravo!
PPS – December, 2002. I've changed my mind about Beloved. Over time I have found myself gravitating to the "over-emotional" one on this CD. Now I never bother with the more prim & proper version at all.
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