In an excellent & thought-provoking article on this page, Orlando Barone opines that musically, Mario Lanza stopped growing after his Hollywood Bowl appearances in the late 40s. At first hearing, this claim, while startling, has considerable merit - indeed, comparing the Traviata, Butterfly & Boheme duets at the Bowl in 1947 with the execrable caterwauling on Lanza On Broadway from 1956, or with some of the sad travesties on Mario's last albums in 1959, one is tempted to conclude that Mario actually went backwards after 1947-49.
He didn't, of course. Orlando is quite mistaken, for example, in saying that Mario's 1947 Improvviso at the Bowl was his best operatic performance ever. Thrilling though it was in the circumstances, it was easily surpassed by his 1950 commercial recording of that aria, which simply swept all before it. The same could be said of his performances of E Lucevan Le Stelle on those two occasions. His Serenade recording of O Paradiso in 1955 is easily superior to the earlier commercial & Coke versions, and there is no question that he did some of his finest operatic singing in that movie. Many claim that his 1958 Pagliacci was better than his numerous earlier essayings of the great lament, and they are arguably right.
The point is, in truth, that Mario had no consistently good or bad period. Just think of the Broadway & Cavalcade albums - mere months apart chronologically, but light years apart musically. One can find good & bad at just about any time of Mario's career.
With this in mind, I would like to offer a few thoughts as to some of the selections that I believe would be indispensable to a "definitive" 3-CD collection such as I have suggested on the Post-A-Message page: one CD given over to opera, one to Italian & Neapolitan songs, & one to songs of love (a single CD of sacred songs already exists). This, I must stress, is a "wish list," never likely to happen, since it draws in part on unreleased movie soundtracks and other rare material that, as a radio professional, I have been privileged to hear over the years. If anything like it were ever to come about, however, I hope that Clyde Smith would be willing & available to supervise the sound dubbings, so that we could be treated anew to the revelations that he achieved with Don't Forget Me.
The opera CD should definitely contain one of the 1947 duets mentioned above - probably the Butterfly, surging as it does to such an exultant climax, conjuring up as it does the image of two wide-eyed kids singing their hearts out in terrifying circumstances, and conquering. If it were possible to edit out the excruciating Jean Tennyson & edit in a half-decent soprano, I would recommend including the Otello duet from earlier still in Mario's career - OK, it's not the right voice for Otello, but who cares, it's just plain gorgeous! Obviously, the incomparable 1949 Che Gelida Manina & the 1950 Tosca recordings are a must. Cielo E Mar? Definitely the Coke version, which has a much better line & is much more on pitch than the mediocre commercial performance. Both Chenier arias should be there, in their commercial incarnations. Rigoletto? I'd settle for the commercial Questa, the Coke Parmi - & I'd forget La Donna altogether (the Great Caruso & Albert Hall readings of it are in character, but scarcely brilliant). For a magnificent Addio Alla Madre, you can't go past the Coke reading. Forza? I'd settle for either Coke or commercial (actually, the commercial recitative combined with the Coke aria would be ideal!). O Paradiso, Amor Ti Vieta & the Otello monologue from Serenade clearly have to be there - not, however, the Serenade Lamento, great though it is; having been fortunate enough to hear the Coke rendering, I believe IT was Mario's best. My favourite Pagliacci is the Great Caruso one - I'd include that, as I would the beautiful Marta duet from that soundtrack (and the M'Appari, if it exists in full). The delightful Cosi trio from the For The First Time soundtrack would add a novel touch; and, if they could balance up the voices and co-ordinate soloists & chorus a bit more successfully than they've managed to to date, the engineers should put the Aida selection from that movie on this CD as well. What an exciting close to the operatic selections it would represent!
And just think of the delectable goodies one could feast on with the Italian/Neapolitan (& Spanish) CD: the original Marechiare & 'A Vucchella; that stunning, unreleased Coke Senza Nisciuno; the great Santa Lucia Luntana Coke take that somehow didn't make it onto the Don't Forget Me CD; the latter song itself, of course; the outrageous Coke La Danza; the gorgeous Passione & Voce 'E Notte from the Mario! album; L'Alba, Vaghissima & Serenata (flawed, but still amazing) from Caruso Favourites; La Spagnola, 'Na Sera & Tu Ca Nun Chiagne from Coke; Granada from the Because You're Mine soundtrack (yes, you read it right - I HATE the commercial recording: it's badly recorded, too slow, & Mario is flat on his High C); one or other (take your pick) of the Core 'Ngratos; Sorrento from Serenade; that cup-rattling O Sole Mio from 1949; and of course the rapturous Mamma Mia Che Vo' Sape from Mario's first recording session.
Finally, the love songs. What mouth-watering dilemmas one contemplates in making these selections! For how right was Enrico Caruso Jr, quoted on this site, when he said that Mario's ability to excel in both the classical & light popular repertory was "beyond even my father's exceptional talents"?! First, let's get rid of Be My Love, The Loveliest Night Of The Year, With A Song In My 'Art (ugh!) and anything at all from Lanza On Broadway. The first three are on just about every Mario CD ever released, and everything from the latter album is unlistenable. Bring on Because from The Great Caruso soundtrack - what a fabulous rendering! Let's hear Frankie Laine's When You're In Love as only Mario could sing it; Noel Coward's I'll See You Again & Some Day I'll Find You (the take on Don't Forget Me); the achingly beautiful My Buddy; Some Day, as featured on the You Do Something To Me CD (and the title song from that while we're about it); All The Things You Are, recorded for Because You're Mine (haven't heard it? - haven't lived!); Tell Me Tonight & The World Is Mine Tonight from the early Magic Mario album; the Drinking Song & Beloved from the Student Prince soundtrack; The Song Angels Sing, sung by an angel; The Thrill Is Gone, A Kiss and Yesterdays from the Coke period; even Love Me Tonight from the 1959 Vagabond King recording - yes, he cracked on the low notes, but my, how a dying man could still soar! - and One Flower from his very last album, The Desert Song; and finally, a knock-your-socks-off tour de force that the world has never heard & that would guarantee this CD compendium best-seller status & shoot Mario right up into the stratosphere just as though he were still alive & in his prime: the alternate title song from Serenade. Better than the melody used in the film, recorded with barely audible piano, this song finishes with Mario surpassing himself in a succession of High Bs that would send Pavarotti, Domingo & Carreras scurrying back to their teachers. "We've got the night; we've got our love; we've got our Serenade!" he sings, exuding a spiritual muscularity which embodies that god-like timelessness to which Jeff has referred elsewhere on this site (and I say this as an atheist!). Add an orchestra to it, have Clyde make sure that it's processed properly, and you have the biggest single guarantee possible of a Mario Lanza renaissance.
To end where I began - these performances, representing Mario at his absolute best (not exhaustively, of course), span his entire career. It's not true, fortunately, that he stopped growing after 1947. It is true, unfortunately, that he didn't achieve his full potential stature. But as I said in the conclusion to one of my radio tributes: "We may legitimately lament what might have been; let us also be thankful for what was." A CD compendium such as I've proposed here would, I believe, be a fitting tribute to what was.