Mario Lanza - Serenade
The classically trained tenor in, or at, the movies or on TV is almost as old as moving pictures. The Marx Brothers often featured Allan Jones – good enough of both voice and acting skills elsewhere to have scenes cut at the whim of a jealous Nelson Eddy. Our own Billy Cotton Band Show featured Alan Breeze for 36 years. But when Kenneth Connor, in the 1962 film Carry On Cruising, serenaded Dilys Laye during a Mediterranean cruise with “Oh, bella Flo”, everyone knew that it was the late Mario Lanza he was imitating.
The pages of Gramophone make interesting reading on the battleground of tastes still raging about this singer. “For many years now,” wrote WA Chislett in October 1959, “I have rarely heard a record by him that did not make me think how much better he could have been if he had studied artistry as industriously as mere voice production”. Then, some 40 years later, Michael Quinn, reviewing a Lanza book by Derek Mannering (compiler of this present release), noted that “it is worth being reminded that not everything so gilded is necessarily plastic and ephemeral. That Lanza shifted some 350,000 units for BMG/RCA Victor in the 1990s alone tells us something about the charismatic and continuing allure of this still controversial voice”.
The “controversy” was precisely spelled out by Chicago critic Claudia Cassidy at the start of Lanza’s cruelly short career when straightforward work in opera seemed both possible and certain. “Though a multitude of fine points evade him”, she wrote, “he possesses the things almost impossible to learn. He knows the accent that makes a lyric line reach its audience, and he knows why opera is music drama.” There is no official opera in the present collection but its mix of near-opera, Italian song and up-market MOR makes it (charmingly) like an original version of the lighter material with which the Three Tenors ballasted their World Cup concerts. “Seven previously unreleased recordings” are claimed but, like that of many crossover artists, this singer’s discography is already a mess of reissues and “alternative” versions.
But he’s in good voice throughout here. The smooch, aka the sexual allure of smearing vowels into each other and making some up on the way, can be overdone. Musica proibita is like someone parodying Lanza (or like Domingo’s and Carreras’s friendly spoof of Pavarotti in Three Tenors 1) but the closing “Arriverderci Roma” is superbly sensual torch singing of a number that never went quite far enough with Sinatra or Matt Monro. It’s a pity – but liveable with – that the orchestras and their arrangements, slickly directed by the singer’s ubiquitous accompanists Sinatra (no relation) and Collinicos, often overgild the lily by duplicating the emotional acting of Lanza’s singing.
If you find the repertoire on this disc too cloying for 66 minutes’ continuous listening, remember that Lanza didn’t record it for a through-composed CD anthology. If it makes you curious for more, try the earlier opera-based selection included in Armando Cesari’s recommendable Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy (Baskerville: 2004).