Visiting a Dying Friend

Mario Lanza

by James Kilbourne

James Kilbourne

At the urging of Derek McGovern, I took out Mario Lanza Sings Caruso Favorites, which is paired on one CD with The Great Caruso album, and listened carefully to it. It had been years since I sat down and played this entire collection from beginning to end. As I put the CD in the player and went to "Vieni sul mar," the opening song, the memory of the first time I heard this collection came sharply into focus. It was released in 1960, after Lanza's death, with a second 33rpm complete album of songs and arias by Enrico Caruso. I remember coming upon it in the store, completely surprised by its existence, and rushing home, canceling all other plans for the day. My memory of that day is so detailed that I even recall such a triviality as what the paper band used to keep the two albums together looked like. I remember my excitement when I ripped it off and eagerly opened the Caruso Favorites.

I was 15 years old when Lanza died. On Derek's suggestion, and inspired by Lindsay's touching description of how he discovered Lanza through witnessing his mother's tearful reaction to Mario's death, I will write about that experience for this group in the near future. For now, I bring it up only to say that I had a 15-year-old's fanaticism about my hero in those days. It took me a long time to hear Lanza's final releases with anything even approaching reality, as the tragedy of his death to the mythmaking teenage James required that he had to have been at his best on the very day he died. I was messianic in my zeal to show the world what it had lost. I traveled everywhere, playing for anyone who would listen, the proof of his final perfection. With a little embarrassment, I smile now when I think of that younger me, but there is also more than a faint sense of pride in recognizing my ability to discern greatness and real perfection at that age.

As with all of his recordings from The Student Prince onwards, I memorized every breath of every song. Therefore, I wasn't surprised when I still felt every twitch of his nostrils, every lifting of an eyebrow on every single note. Mario Lanza never knew Mario Lanza's singing like I do - something I have in common with Derek, Lindsay and most of you in this group. The 30-year-old James' reassessment of Lanza's last recordings in the 70s was much more accurate than the star-struck teen view, and considerably more aware of his flaws. But James at 60 had a few more discoveries to make.

First, I hadn't concentrated on the quality of this CD release, and it is indeed better than the original record. It still isn't very good, but it is better. The early days of stereo from the late 50s to the mid 60s produced some very uneven results. In Lanza's case, all of his 1959 albums were poorly recorded. What a shame, because some of the greatest-sounding recordings ever made, such as, the Bjoerling Tosca and the Solti Ring, were made in that same period. However, this CD is sufficiently superior to the original release that I became quickly aware that the difference between this Lanza and the Lanza of the Mario! Neapolitan album, recorded only six months apart, was not the 180-degree difference I had come to see in the 70s. Indeed, for all his greatness, most of his albums have songs that just are not up to the others, either in vocal precision or emotional appropriateness. The Student Prince is the most glorious exception to this rule.

The three songs where Mario just misses altogether are "Vieni sul mar," "Luna d'estate," and "Santa Lucia." In all of them, he just never seems to get comfortable. However, there is a grandeur in "Vieni sul mar" that leaves me loving it, and the last note of "Luna d'estate" is like a haunted whisper from a less painful and more tender past. This "Musica proibita" has been hard for me to listen to since I discovered the electric Coke Show rendition, which despite a slight frog in his throat at the end of that version is all sparkle and magic. The one on this CD sounds tired and unimaginative in comparison.

Despite a very unsatisfactory final high note, "L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra" is as magnificent as I remember it. Some of the crescendos are haunting in their impact, even reminiscent of the other-wordly, nearly spiritual sound of the final note of his earlier "Passione." The true surprises in this album for me were "Senza nisciuno" - which also has the intensity of some of the greatest recordings of the Mario! album such as "'Na sera 'e Maggio" - "Serenata," which comes through with the most energy by far of all these offerings, and "Vaghissima sembianza," an almost-overlooked gem in the world of Italian song. In "Serenata," a song written by Caruso, you can hear Mario summon strength and focus in tribute to his childhood hero. In an ascending scale towards the end of the song, the recording is sufficiently clear to realize that Lanza actually touches on a note that I previously thought he had missed altogether. It makes a surprisingly big difference, for the line no longer sounds sloppy and off-key. In all three of these songs, you hear a darker voice and a more reflective man, but a man who is obviously the artistic giant of his era, still unequalled in his power to dazzle you with the beauty of his voice and the sheer majesty of his presentation.

Due to the clearer recording quality, the two saddest songs to me - "Pour un baiser" and "Ideale" - are better than I remember. I know these are loved by many here, and I hesitate to say this, but say it I must if I am to make my point. It isn't that they are bad; they are very good. But they are not nearly as good as they would have been if he had recorded them six or seven years earlier. This is what is so sad about many of his post-1955 recordings and all recordings made in 1959: he can no longer command the tenderness and the sense of world wonder that just spilled out of him in earlier years. I know he was sick and couldn't count on his energy level any longer, but that is not enough to explain it all. Maybe, if his health had returned and he had finally conquered the world's great opera theatres - as he was destined to do before Hollywood intervened - he would have rekindled that beautiful joy of life that set him apart from all others when he appeared and he set our imaginations on fire.

The voice in 1959? Still the greatest in the world - maybe even greater than in the early years. And the heart, saddened and slowed, is still bigger than the hills of home he so eloquently sang about in happier times. I would still take a wounded Mario Lanza over three healthy Nicolai Geddas, or a multiple of almost any other artist that you could name.

It is not the sadness of hearing the life slipping out of the physical man that I find overwhelming. It is the tragedy of seeing a beautiful flower tiring of its search for nutrients and sunlight in a fetid, foggy, chemical swamp. In this last year of life, Mario Lanza had become a man who had been misunderstood, ignored, and trivialized for so long that it was becoming impossible for him to face this ignoble enemy of monstrous indifference to joy and grandeur. In this album and in all that Lanza sang in his last year of life, there is for me a heartbreaking echo to every golden note. It is the sound of an injured lion making a desperate cry for rest.