A blurry screencap from the surviving kinescope of Lanza's initial moments on Shower of Stars, 28 October 1954
Overweight and dressed in an outlandish oversized collar, Lanza nevertheless looks every inch the operatic tenor as he appears from behind the curtains and strides onto the CBS stage.
Visibly nervous, he looks briefly around while he seeks to maintain his composure. Then an oboe signals the haunting introduction to "E Lucevan le Stelle," and he fleetingly closes his eyes, losing himself in the beautiful music as he literally becomes the doomed hero that Puccini envisioned. His complete involvement in the aria now assured, he begins to sing.
"E lucevan le stelle, ed olezzava la terra…" Nervousness is still evident, but one thing is clear: the voice is intact. There is, however, a small technical problem. Perhaps fearing a further scandal, the producers have erred on the side of caution in terms of microphone placement, with the balance between singer and orchestra clearly in the latter's favour. Certainly Lanza's voice sounds pushed back and foggily recorded. On the plus side, Mario's delicate phrasing is immediately apparent. He smiles to himself as he sings "Mi cadea fra le braccia," recalling the memory of his lover's embrace, and shaping the exquisite words with his hands. When he gets to "disciogliea dai veli," he comes into his own with such ringing splendour that the reverberation around the auditorium must have startled the assembled journalists into snapping their pencils.
By now in control, Lanza takes things up a notch dramatically, pouring everything he has into the aria. One senses a man oblivious to everything around him as he emphatically repeats the line "E muoio disperato!" It is the cry of a man who has lost everything: truly singing from the soul.
Lanza looks every inch the operatic tenor as he appears from behind the curtains and strides onto the CBS stage.
Moments later he sings the climactic line: "E non ho amato mai tanto la vita," closing his eyes on the sustained high A on "amato" as the emotion of the moment temporarily transports him to another world. A near-hysterical "la vita!" ends the rendition, and Mario gulps with a mixture of relief and exhaustion, seemingly drained from the sheer drama of the moment. The audience erupts with wild applause, and Lanza--still dazed from the experience--acknowledges the cheering in an uncharacteristically subdued manner.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," he tells them, somewhat breathlessly. "And now, in answer to all the wonderful letters you sent me since the first Chrysler Show, may I sing for you the one that you requested most: Some Day from The Vagabond King."
Although fans must have scratched their heads over this supposed "request"--Some Day, after all, had not yet been released on any Lanza album--it proves to be an inspired choice for the tenor. Alternately sweet and heroic, it had been one of the highlights of Mario's Coca-Cola radio show three years earlier, and here Lanza's commitment to the song is as compelling as ever. "Some day, you will seek me and find me," he sings at the outset, filling the auditorium with his dulcet liquid tone. Clearly more relaxed now he savours every word, with Spadoni's slow tempi highlighting his sensitive phrasing and impressive breath control.
The rendition is a masterly display of Mario's soft and loud pedals. "Some day, when the winter is over," he sings caressingly at one point, forming the words with magical delicacy. Moments later he is thrillingly exultant (". . . of a dream that is CALLING for you and for me"), switching pedals seamlessly, and to disarming effect.
Spadoni's slow tempi highlights Lanza's sensitive phrasing and impressive breath control.
Uncomfortable only when the off-stage chorus takes over—and he is awkwardly marooned with nothing to do—the impact of his performance is a marvel of dazzling vocalism and irresistible stage presence.
Supremely confident in the second half of Some Day, he stands there, arms outstretched, building the song to a devastating climax that is reminiscent of his on-screen delivery of Torna a Surriento in the movie Serenade. (He even looks similar here.) His approach is fearless, with a blithe lack of concern for the sustained high A on which he must conclude the song. Where other singers would have betrayed their fear of the difficult note that is coming, Lanza appears to relish the challenge. "My soul shall discover the soul born for her lover," he sings with great feeling—again utilizing both soft and loud pedals—and then the climax: "the man with the heart of a KING!"
Brief, Yet Magnificent
And the king indeed of tenors Lanza reveals himself to be here. Gratefully acknowledging the terrific applause--and not quite believing that the brief concert is over--he welcomes Spadoni onto the stage, clinging to his friend's hand as the latter tries to depart. It's a touching gesture of love toward the man who had helped make the event possible, and not the only time that Spadoni would come to the rescue with his support and musical expertise. My only regret is the sheer brevity of this concert. With Lanza in such fine vocal fettle, he could have sung anything that night, and the mouth waters when one imagines the likes of Che Gelida Manina (which Mario had sung for the press that month) also being on the programme.
Lanza would sing live on television on two subsequent occasions, one of which has been preserved on film (his second appearance at the London Palladium in 1957). Considering that he gave over 150 concerts in his brief career, that is a meagre sampling indeed, and made all the more frustrating by the knowledge that we live in an age in which every Bocelli or Watson concert is faithfully captured in pristine digital quality. But let's be grateful for the two brief concerts that we do have on film.
And out there that October night some chastened reporters suddenly had a lot of explaining to do.
Mario Lanza Shower of Stars (7:46) 28 October 1954