Rebirth of Reason


Review of "If You Were Mine" by Mario Lanza
by Lindsay Perigo

What glittering jewels are gathered here! The selections on the Damon Lanza Productions CD If You Were Mine, unavailable elsewhere, show Damon's father in the freshest of voices & highest of spirits. This is now definitely added to my list of Desert Island CDs, so much material is there that, having heard it, I could not live without.

The CD begins with a home recording of Mario testing out a tape recorder. First, he tells us, he's going to talk a little, then he's going to sing. He calls out to his four-year-old daughter, Colleen, & asks, "How much do you love me, Sweetheart?" In the background, she replies, "A million. More than a million." Mario teases, "What? Is that all you love me? You mean to tell me you love me only more than a million?" The precocious Colleen shoots back, "I dunno. The last number there is. More than the last number there is." Mario duly notes this & tells Colleen she'll never know how much he loves her. Then he sings an arpeggio, followed by an octave leap from middle B-Flat to a high one, which he holds, thrillingly & ostentatiously. Colleen applauds. Mario says, "Mmmmmm, thank you, my public!" More banter & singing follow, at the end of which Mario admonishes Colleen not to catch a chill. This is a delightful vignette, & a litmus test: if you can listen to this without being moved to laughter & tears, you probably should not bother with the rest of the CD! Two more home recordings follow, with Constantine Callinicos at the piano: the poet's tirade against tyranny from Andrea Chenier, & the ballad that was a staple part of Mario's concert repertoire, "Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky." Both are astonishing. Somehow the home recording, without the benefit of sophisticated knobs & faders, captures the primordial power of Mario's voice & the volcanic explosiveness of his singing more startlingly than any commercial recording I have heard. Was ever tyranny more shatteringly denounced than in the declamatory passages in this performance of Chenier's Improvviso? Was ever love more soaringly celebrated than in its final phrases? Was ever a plea more heartfelt than Mario's rendering of the very words, "Tell me, oh blue, blue sky" at the song's conclusion?

Some light relief follows in the form of a brief contribution by Mario to a chorus of "Happy Birthday" for the then (1945) head of RCA, David Sarnoff. The chorus includes the great baritone Robert Merrill. If only Mario had said to Merrill, "Hey, Bob, let's knock off the Pear Fishers duet & maybe some Othello while we're here!"

It is said that 17-year-old Mario visited the dressing room of the renowned tenor, Giov anni Martinelli, one evening after a performance, & told him he was great, but there was one greater. When Martinelli inquired who it was, Mario replied, "Don't worry about it now, but you'll be hearing of him. His name is Mario Lanza." His impertinence didn't end there! The next track on this CD is Mario impersonating Martinelli, in a devastating caricature of his mannerisms.

Then we hear him as himself in the same aria, M'Appari, as recorded for the movie Toast of New Orleans. A little rushed; competent, but not remarkable.

Alternate takes of the Madam Butterfly duet, recorded commercially with Elaine Malbin, are next on the smorgasbord - they differ little from the version that was released, & reinforce the feeling that that day, Mario should have taken some valium. The dear lad's testosterone is running riot, even by his already alarming standards; of subtlety there is no trace. The horses are well & truly frightened - nay (!), terrified. Did the blonde & shapely Miss Malbin have this effect on all her tenors?

All is forgiven after the next track, though - a revelation in more ways than one. It's Vesti la Giubba from Pagliacci. The cover notes include it as one of several selections recorded for the movie The Great Caruso. It is not. It is clearly a third take from the commercial recording session with RCA ... & it is by far the best of the three! I was always thrilled by the throbbing expressiveness of the other two takes, but regretful that so many notes were "sharp" - i.e. overpitched. Here, there is no loss of expression but the pitching is (mostly!) accurate. Why this take was not the one favoured for release I can't begin to imagine. What moments of rapture it contains! When he comes to the "Ah!" before "Ridi, Pagliaccio!" Mario, singing with the voice of a god, decides it's such a good note he just HAS to linger on it. One hears the orchestra slow & amp; pause ... then - eventually! - Mario rolls an "r" & sails into the word, "Ridi," taking what must surely have been an astonished orchestra with him. The moment is sensational. The whole performance is unearthly.

The following twelve selections are indeed from the Great Caruso recording sessions:

- Che Gelida Manina: an alternate take, similar to that actually used;

- A pleasant, low-key Santa Lucia, not used in the movie at all;

- E Lucevan Le Stelle: the movie take, only more of it;

- Cielo E Mar: an alternate take, with the two B-Flats that ring out so splendidly in the movie version surprisingly diffident here;

- Surriento: alternate take, done loudly!

- M'Appari: alternate take, again not as open & free as the movie one;

- Mattinata: the movie take;

- Miserere: one of the highlights of the CD. It's the movie take, only much more of it. It's wonderful to hear Mario with sopranos who, if not in his league exactly, are at least worthy of him. Lucine Amara is a fine Leonora. The final "Addio" is heart-stopping;

- Brindisi: the movie take, with the same very irritating edit;

- Bada Santuzza! : the movie take, but again, more of it. Turiddu/Mario's anger at Santuzza's jealousy is utterly terrifying;

- E Il Sol Dell'Anima: two takes, neither used in the movie. Since the Rigoletto sequence in the film didn't go anywhere, one assumes some of it must have ended up on the cutting room floor. E Il Sol was probably it. What a shame! There are two takes. In the first, Mario sings his part in creamy sotto voce, which gets more voluptuous the higher he goes. The second take is full-on, punctuated by a woman - Novotna? - screaming discordantly, "Stop screaming" as Mario gets into his stride. All part of the edited action, no doubt. One would like to imagine Mario/Caruso riposting: "Signora, I may be screaming, but at least I am screaming in tune. Would you mind doing the same?"

I am overstaying my welcome here, so shan't give a detailed run-down of the remaining selections, from the Student Prince & Because You're Mine soundtracks. Highlights are Mario rehearsing Gaudeamus Igitur an octave down from the chorus, the Ergo Bibamus that was never released commercially, & a full verse of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Oh, & one more thing: the closing, title track, "If You Were Mine." An alternate take, arguably better than the original. The expression of honest sentimentality doesn't get much better than this. Mario soars into the stratosphere & ends up somewhere beyond it. A fitting finale to seventy minutes of heavenliness. Io ti dico ancora - Non ti scorderemo, Mario!

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