A blurry screencap from the surviving kinescope of Lanza's initial moments on Shower of Stars, 28 October 1954
Overweight and wearing 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 poignant 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. Lanza 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 arrives at "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.
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 an inspired choice for the tenor. Alternately sweet and heroic, it had been one of the highlights of his 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 Lanza's soft and loud pedals. "Some day, when the winter is over," he sings caressingly, 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.
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 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 performance. 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 he had sung for the press that month) also being on the programme.
Lanza would sing live on television on two subsequent occasions, only one of which has been preserved on film. 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 concert is faithfully captured in pristine digital quality. But let us 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