Next up was Lanza Sings Christmas Carols in May 1959. Frankly, this recording does nothing for Lanza's reputation, especially when listened alongside his earlier (1950-56) collection of Christmas favourites. Appropriatelydubbed "dour and depressing" by Lindsay Perigo in one of his reviews, "O Christmas Tree" is perhaps the only highlight on an album that is singularly lacking in the tenor's customary warmth and involvement. Whether the album was simply a casualty of Lanza's poor health at the time, or the result of a combination of factors (such as a lack of rapport between the tenor and his soon-to-be-dismissed conductor Paul Baron), the disc should have been quietly shelved. Instead, it has remained available on CD since 1998, while far worthier Lanza albums have been withdrawn in the meantime from Sony/BMG's catalogue.
Mario Lanza Sings Caruso Favorites
On a much happier note, the aforementioned Caruso Favorites album of June 1959 features Lanza in fine form. As with all the 1959 recordings, however, the reproduction of Lanza's voice (though curiously not the orchestra) on BMG's LP and CDs is far from ideal, and the ever-present distortion mars some of the best moments. Gripes aside, this is an important album in the Lanza canon. Among the highlights are the Neapolitan song "Senza Nisciuno;" a tasteful "Vaghissima Sembianza," replete with two beautiful High As; the supremely daunting "Serenata," with its repeated As and even a high B; and three exquisite Tosti songs: "L'Alba Separa Dalla Luce L'Ombra," "Pour Un Baiser" and "Ideale."
"L'Alba Separa Dalla Luce L'Ombra" deserves special mention. Lanza is appropriately operatic on this miniature masterpiece, and although his voice sounds heavy and slightly raspy, the impact of his performance is deeply moving. When he gets to the line, "Chiudimi, O notte, nel tuo sen materno," (Envelop me, O night, in your maternal breast), we know that we are in the presence of greatness.
L'Alba Separa emerges as a wonderful example of Lanza's artistic maturity.
My only regret is that poor sound quality mars the climactic moment that comes shortly afterwards on the middle syllable of the word "eterno." I used to think that Lanza was in trouble on this note (a B-flat), but a closer listening on headphones reveals that the fault lies with the actual recording. (Admittedly, it's not one of his greatest B-flats.) If one can overlook the distortion and "boxed-in" sound quality, "L'Alba Separa" emerges as an impressive piece of singing, and a wonderful example of Lanza's artistic maturity.
Among the few lesser moments, "Santa Lucia" is marred by a boisterous arrangement that sounds more like a march than a lilting ode to the Bay of Naples, and an obviously tired Lanza (especially in the second half of the song), and "Lolita," although competently sung, pales in comparison with the tenor's much more joyful and involved 1949 recording. Elsewhere on the album, with the exception of "Senza Nisciuno," this is a heavier voice than the one heard on the Mario! album, reflecting the decline in Lanza's health in the intervening six months. Nevertheless, this is, above all, intelligent, sensitive singing. For those who complain that Lanza was a belter and a stylistic ruffian, the reflective "Ideale" should be required listening, with the tenor eschewing even the optional high note, and, in comparison with almost every other recorded version by anybody, singing the quiet ending exactly as written ("quasi parlante"—or "almost spoken").
The Final Albums: The Vagabond King & The Desert Song
After Caruso Favorites, Mario returned to operetta for his two final albums, The Vagabond Kingand The Desert Song, recorded in July and August-September, respectively. The voice is still intact; one only needs to hear the brilliant high As in "Love Me Tonight," or the tenor's handling of the demanding tessitura in "One Flower Grows Alone In Your Garden" for proof of that. And yet there is sadness in hearing the obviously ailing tenor battling to deliver the vocal goods. I've often wished that RCA had opted for a "best of" collection on a single disc from these albums, rather than posthumously exposing the sad reality that Lanza was exhausted on his final two projects.
...there is sadness in hearing the obviously ailing tenor battling to deliver the vocal goods.
Happily, though, each album contains at least one song that seems to encapsulate the two essential elements of Lanza: the romantic longing in the underrated "One Alone" (recorded in September 1959—barely a month before his death) and the lust for life in the rousing "Drinking Song" from The Vagabond King.
"For if I die, as I hope to die/ Then I'll never be sober again, not I!" are the prophetic words that Mario sings in the latter, as he gleefully anticipates the dual delights of a buxom wench and an ocean of wine. I'm comforted by both recordings. For amid those sad final sessions of 1959, the "Drinking Song" and "One Alone" reinforce the sense that Lanza—at his happiest, a joyous celebrant of life--remained essentially the same romantic tenor of yore until the very end.
Mario Lanza "Passione" (4:16) December 1958 Music video created by Vince di Placido. To view more of Vince's beautifully crafted Lanza music videos, visit our forum discussion here.
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