The Rip Post


NEW HIGH NOTE FOR MARIO LANZA

by Rip Rense
(originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Michael Bolton contorts his way through a new album of operatic arias. Aretha Franklin struggles through Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" at the Grammy Awards. The Three Tenors are almost as popular as Elvis.

Opera is no longer longhair (or blue hair) music. At sellout performances across the country, Verdi and Leoncavallo are the hottest dates in town. And the matinee idol/tenor who first made operatic singing a hot date with a mass audience 48 years ago---Mario Lanza---seems to be making a comeback. No easy trick for a man who died in 1959.

Consider: Lanza---proclaimed the voice of the century by no less an authority than conductor Arturo Toscanini---is the subject of a detailed forthcoming biography, Tenor in Exile, by Roland Bessette, due next year from Amadeus Press. The Mario Lanza Society's annual galas in Philadelphia, Lanza's home town, continue to attract fans from around the planet. Actor/tenor Charles GaVoian is garnering rave reviews with his one-man play, The Mario Lanza Story---with runs so far in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and elsewhere. All Three Tenors---Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras---acknowledge Lanza's impact, having performed his signature hit, "Be My Love," at the Dodger Stadium concert in 1996. Carreras and Domingo, who cite Lanza movies like Because You're Mine as an early inspiration, have recorded CD and video tributes to the tenor. Domingo narrates the video documentary, Mario Lanza: the American Caruso, and Carrerras performed a Lanza tribute concert in London last year that attracted tens of thousands. And yes, there is an extensive Mario Lanza website, which can be accessed through www.rense.com.

Now comes the crowning touch---brand new, never-released Mario Lanza music. The tenor is primed to re-enter the charts with the just-released, lavishly packaged Be My Love: Mario Lanza's Greatest Performances at MGM, from Turner Classic Movie Music/Rhino Movie Music ($16.98.) It is the first release ever of soundtrack music from Lanza's five MGM films---and is merely the first of an expected series of Lanza vault releases from Turner/Rhino.

"These were jewels sitting in the vault waiting to be liberated!" said George Feltenstein, vice president of marketing at Turner and producer of the project. "If the fans support this, there will be more. I'm hoping we'll be able to do full soundtrack albums for The Great Caruso and The Student Prince. I would love to be able to have all the recordings eventually come out. I'd say there are easily at least 40-60 tracks that could be released."

The MGM soundtracks were never issued because Lanza was signed with RCA in the early 50s, when the films were made. MGM, the first movie studio to have its own record company ("they basically invented the soundtrack album," says Feltenstein), was greatly disappointed it could not legally release albums for Lanza's box office smashes, including   The Great Caruso. Lanza instead made studio versions of songs from his films, with smaller orchestras, which were issued by RCA.

The Lanza (MGM soundtrack) recordings--- says Feltenstein---languished forgotten for decades, ultimately rescued after Turner Entertainment bought the MGM vaults and began issuing soundtrack releases by its biggest stars, including Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly.

"I'm very familiar with Astaire, Kelly, Garland, Sinatra," said Feltenstein, producer of all the vault projects, "but my forte was not opera, or Mr. Lanza's material. So it meant I had to immerse myself in it, and I didn't think I was going to like it. Boy, was I surprised! I went from doing a project out of respect for his huge fan base to becoming a fan, myself."

Why the lingering popularity? Why the fan clubs around the world, in England, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, Germany. . .

"It's due to a lot of things," said Mario Lanza Story star GaVoian, reached in Los Angeles. "Certainly, there is that absolutely astonishing voice, and movie star quality. But he died so young---it's the same kind of thing you find with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. And Lanza not only influenced the Three Tenors, but a whole generation of singers. That name still stirs something in people. It still draws."

Terry Robinson, Lanza's close friend, physical trainer, and author of Lanza: His Tragic Life, Prentice-Hall, 1980, was more succinct: "It's the voice," he said. "There's never been anything like it. It brings people together."

Lanza grew up in Philadelphia, honing his almost unearthly vocal powers by singing along to Victrola recordings of Enrico Caruso. He later trained operatically, and toured the country in the late 40s with George London and Francis Yeend as the Bel Canto Trio. Louis B. Mayer's executive secretary discovered the young singer after hearing him perform as a last-minute substitute at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947. The magnetic, handsome tenor became an overnight matinee idol with That Midnight Kiss in 1949.

But Lanza was forever between two worlds. On the one hand, he was crowned the "voice of the century" by Toscanini. On the other, he was a pop icon and sometimes crooner with films like The Toast of New Orleans and Because You're Mine---which propelled songs like "Be My Love" to the top of the pop charts. Beleagured as much as benefitted by fame, the tempestuous Lanza fell victim to his legendary apetites for wine, women, and pasta---ultimately abandoning Hollywood (or vice-versa) after a stormy relationship with studio moguls. He died in Italy in 1959 at 38, officially the victim of excessive lifestyle-related heart trouble, but Robinson and some family members suspected mafia involvement. (Lanza is alleged to have inadvertently offended the mob by failing to sing on at a charity concert partly arranged by Lucky Luciano.)

The historic new CD---with 22-page booklet illustrated with rare photos---features two of Lanza's most important extended operatic recordings: the Act1 finale from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, with Kathryn Grayson (from Toast), and the sextet from Act II, scene 2 of Donizetti's Lucia Di Lammermoor, in which he was joined by the Metropolitan Opera's Kirsten, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Nicola Moscona, and Gilbert Russell.

"I remember that recording session," said Robinson. "All the other singers were right on their microphones, but Mario said, 'move it back, move it back.' And the Met singers were amazed. They had no idea what kind of voice he had. They wanted him to come to the Met." The CD, which features excerpts from That Midnight Kiss, The Toast of New Orleans, (1950), The Great Caruso (1951), Because You're Mine (1952), and The Student Prince (1954), also includes two outtakes: "All The Things You Are" from Because. . ., and one of the most historically important recordings Lanza ever made---one that marked a tragic turning point in his career, "Beloved," from Prince. This rejected "Beloved" was a torrid take that resulted in Lanza walking off the Prince project, forever tainting him with Hollywood moguls---particularly MGM head Dore Schary. "I was standing there when he walked out!" remembered Robinson. "That's the one that caused all the trouble. He sang it too sexy, they said."

"Beloved's" sticking point was interpretation. In the Sigmund Romberg operetta, the student prince is rejected by his princess for lacking passion. It is after being sent to Heidelberg to be with other students, and learn the ways of romance, that he sings the ardent paen to the princess. The song is meant to be passionate, but Prince's initial director, Curtis Bernhardt, didn't see it that way. The conflict was a flashpoint resulting in lawsuits with MGM, culminating a couple years later with Lanza's departure from Hollywood and relocation to Rome, where he died.

"Bernhardt said, 'you know, Mario, you are a Prussian prince---don't do it so exciting!'' said Robinson. "Mario said, 'look, when I tell a girl I'm going to take her tonight, and throw the mask away, well, I'm an Italian!' Mario walked out, and said to Bernhardt very simply, 'if you want to direct me, you direct my acting, not my singing.'" Lanza eventually settled the dispute by completing the soundtrack, but backing out of the film. Edmund Purdom wound up lip-synching Lanza's voice to co-star Ann Blyth. The "Beloved" version used in film is "totally milktoast," said Feltenstein. "On the CD, you hear the passion and fire he wanted to bring to work. And he was right."

The Lanza children---daughter Elissa Bregman and son Damon Lanza---were pleased with the new release. Said Bregman, reached at home in Los Angeles: "It's been a long time coming.. . .I know there are people around world who would appreciate any new material released on Mario Lanza. I hope this might inspire BMG (RCA's parent company) to release more of their (vault) recordings."

That's correct. There is still another wealth of unreleased Mario Lanza recordings at BMG yet to be mined. . .

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2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.