Serenade: an Underrated Treasure by Derek McGovern page 3
After such a good start, it is frustrating that the film suddenly descends into typical Hollywoodese in a ludicrous scene involving Mario and his singing teacher (Joseph Calleia). Looking very ill at ease—as if he understands the absurdity of the demands being placed upon him—Mario is asked to sing a high C in full voice for his teacher without any warm-up. In the original script, this scene was conceived as a montage depicting Lanza's growing infatuation with Joan Fontaine. There is a montage of sorts in the film, but it is poorly executed, leaving the viewer to assume that Mario storms out of the room in emotional turmoil simply because he has caught sight of Joan Fontaine's photo on the piano.
Things are redeemed somewhat in a subsequent scene involving Joan Fontaine's manipulative powers as she coaxes Mario back to her room, but it is really Lanza's singing that successfully distracts us from the weakness of the narrative. In an operatic montage consisting of Di Rigori Armato, Amor Ti Vieta, and Di Quella Pira, Lanza is outstanding in the first two selections, and disappoints only on the final pinched high C of Di Quella Pira, which oddly is sung in costume despite the absence of the chorus. It's a great shame that an operatic snippet that Mario recorded for the movie from Act I of Tosca was not used instead, but then again the producers were probably more enamored of the visceral appeal of a high C than Lanza's superior singing of Qual Occhio al Mondo.
A Stunning Monologue
The Otello Act III Monologue (Dio! Mi Potevi Scagliar) follows shortly afterwards, and this scene is easily the most impressive of all Lanza's movies, both vocally and visually.
Superbly filmed with one exception (an unnecessary—and clumsily inserted—"E' la!" from the performer playing Iago), we see the skyscrapers first as the orchestra roars the thunderous opening bars of the Monologue, followed by a sweeping shot inside the opera house that pans from an opened score of Otello to the stage itself, where Mario is rehearsing Verdi's sublime aria.
Everything is superb about his acting and singing here, as he adroitly conveys Otello's inner turmoil, ranging from a resigned weariness to maniacal joy, and concluding with a stunning "O GIOIA!" that must have left cinemagoers dumbstruck by its brilliance. It is an extraordinary scene, and a poignant reminder of what Mario could have done with the role on stage. "Mr. Lanza never was in better voice," A.H. Weiler of the New York Times would later observe, and Mario's rendition of the Otello Monologue is arguably his greatest operatic achievement. As the critic John Cargher once remarked, the Otello Monologue alone would "assure Lanza of immortality."
After such an overwhelming scene, the movie inevitably feels anti-climactic, but there is still much to enjoy in the brief extract from Act III of Otello with Licia Albanese that follows, and Mario's resulting flight from America when he discovers that Joan Fontaine has abandoned him in her true-to-form fashion. Rather than bore everybody with painstaking detail, let's fast-forward to the first scene that takes place in Mexico.
It is an extraordinary scene that must have left cinemagoers dumbstruck by its brilliance.
Only Hollywood would depict a tenor going from the dramatic demands of Otello to the lightness of Don Ottavio's music in Don Giovanni, but to be charitable here let's assume that the scenarists were trying to emphasize that Mario's character is so down on his luck that he will accept any role, no matter how inappropriate for his voice type. Lanza's failed audition scene for Don Giovanni is another acting challenge that he almost pulls off. Slightly hammy here in places, he is nonetheless heartwrenching when he bursts into tears in an almost unbearable close-up that reinforces how far Warner Bros have taken him from his MGM days.
Scenes in Mexico
The Mexican scenes were filmed first when Lanza was at his heaviest, and his overweight, disheveled appearance is another example of Warner Bros' superior sense of realism. (Joe Pasternak, who was always so conscious of Lanza's grooming, must have had another fit when he saw these scenes.)
Indeed the tenor should look out of shape in Mexico, since his character has clearly reached rock bottom. Mexico, or more precisely San Miguel de Allende, brings us into contact with the fiery Sarita Montiel in the role of Juana, sanitized here as a famous bullfighter's daughter rather than as the novel's common prostitute.
Montiel is excellent in almost every scene, and restores much of the storyline's credibility. The same cannot be said of Lanza's performance, however, which is frankly uneven in several of the key Mexico scenes. Quite possibly he was unsure of himself in the initial stages of filming, but whatever the reason a retake should definitely have been made of the confrontation scene in which Montiel passionately tells him: "You lived through the fever, but your heart is dead!" Clearly nervous here, he overacts—a great pity given the spectacular location filming and atmospheric mood in this scene.