The Final Years: An Overview of Lanza's 1958-1959 Recordings by Derek McGovern
It may seem strange to talk about Mario Lanza's "early" and "later" voices, as if the tenor enjoyed a long life. But the truth is that in Lanza's short career his voice did change a great deal. To the casual listener comparing, say, Lanza's 1952 "Musica Proibita" with his 1959 rendition of the same song, the difference is astonishing, not only in terms of voice, but also in the tenor's dramatically altered approach to the music.
It's been suggested that Lanza's erratic lifestyle contributed to a premature darkening in his timbre from theSerenade soundtrack recordings of 1955 onward. Nevertheless, recordings as late as November 1957 hark back to the youthful voice of The Student Prince period of 1952-53. These include the 1957 English version of "Arrivederci, Roma"—one of the tenor's most beguiling lyrical creations.
The 1958 sessions
But on record at least, Lanza's first Royal Albert Hall recital in January 1958 seems to have marked the turning point, with his voice richer and darker from that point onward. The voice we hear on this recording suggests that Lanza's lirico spinto tenor had changed to a virtual spinto—a fact not lost on his agent, the musically knowledgeable John Coast, who raved that month about Lanza's "black and warm" timbre and exceptional range, calling him the world's only true "robusto" tenor. "I tell you," Coast wrote to the tenor on January 29, 1958, "Di Stefano, del Monaco, even Jussi—they're not in the same league with you at all." Years later, the famous conductor Franco Ferrara would describe the tenor with whom he worked in December 1958 as "vocally extraordinary," with a voice that combined "both steel and warmth"—an ideal description to my mind of Lanza's later sound .
What Lanza thought of the increasingly baritonal quality to his voice is unknown, and I have always wished that a musically endowed reporter could have interviewed him on the subject, and, for that matter, his thoughts on singing in general. (The closest we get to an in-depth discussion of his musical philosophy is this 1956 interview by conductor Ray Heindorf.)
Lanza's voice had changed from that of a lirico spinto to a virtual spinto one.
"Strong as a pillar from top to bottom" with "no traces of thinning out whatsoever" was John Coast's verdict after the tenor's Stuttgart concert on 27 January 1958, later adding: "He can do anything with his voice." Indeed Lanza could, and his final film—the ironically titled For the First Time--would offer startling evidence of this versatility.
For the First Time
For the First Time, with one exception (the laboured "La Donna e' Mobile"), contained Lanza's most consistent singing in years. One of the highlights is "Vesti la Giubba," ideally heard on the VHS soundtrack rather than on its two CD outings. Heard properly, the impact of this recording is devastating. Possessing by this stage the ideal Canio voice, Lanza delivers a frighteningly effective recitative, followed by his best-ever rendition of this heartwrenching aria. Free of unnecessary histrionics---such as his earlier fondness for overdoing the final phrase---this unusually straightforward rendition (by his standards) is all the more affecting because of its simple sincerity. Some have quibbled that on this occasion he takes a breath before the climactic high A on "infranto," but such critics undervalue the tenor's musical instincts. By taking a breath at this point, which he does almost inaudibly, Lanza is able to give maximum emphasis to the most searing moment in the aria.
(Listen above to Lanza's 1958 version of "Vesti la Giubba.")
As Otello in "For the First Time."
"Vesti la Giubba" is one of several outstanding operatic recordings that Lanza made at the Rome Opera House in September 1958. Other highlights from these sessions included the brief trio ("E Voi Ridete") from Mozart's light comic opera Così Fan Tutte and, for complete contrast, the Death Scene ("Niun Mi Tema") from Otello.
On the latter, Lanza again avoids hammy histrionics and delivers a convincing account of Otello's final moments, concluding with a poignant gasp that is unavoidably touching in the knowledge that he had only a year to live.
In a much lighter vein, Lanza showed in his recordings for his final movie that he had lost none of his ability to sing a convincing love song, delivering a pleasant English-language rendition of "Come Prima," and some brief but satisfying crooning in "O, Mon Amour." "O Sole Mio" is very well sung, albeit in a lower key than the tenor's boisterous 1949 and 1951 versions. Elsewhere, Lanza's celebrated high notes were very much in evidence, with the rousing "Hofbrauhaus Song" (with its ringing B flat) providing not only the novelty of hearing the tenor sing in German, but also proof—if ever it were needed—that his upper register was still gloriously intact less than a year before his death.
Lanza on location filming in Germany, November 1958
Lanza's final work for 1958 was arguably his greatest album, a beautiful collection of Neapolitan songs entitled "Mario!" I have already rhapsodized over these recordings in another essay, but so great is the tenor's achievement here that I can't resist a fuller analysis.
The most immediately obvious aspect of the album is Lanza's complete immersion in the Neapolitan idiom. (Indeed, he sounds so authentic that Neapolitans I encountered in Italy refused to accept that he was not one of them!) His sensitive phrasing is on a par here with his singing on his MGM version ofThe Student Prince. Avoiding the overtly operatic approach that mars so many other performers' renditions of these essentially simple songs, he sings instead as a Neapolitan man of toil, emoting from the heart rather than relying on showy vocal effects. That's not to say there aren't high notes aplenty on this album, but they are tailored to the song rather than merely showcasing a phenomenal vocalist.