The story of Mario Lanza’s lamentably short life seems to be one of tragic waste. Blessed with good looks, a charismatic smile and most importantly an impressive tenor voice, both big and rich. It was no accident that Hollywood gobbled him up the minute the moguls heard what he could do. And he proved them right. His 1949 debut, That Midnight Kiss (with popular soprano Kathryn Grayson) was a hit, and more hits followed. There was The Toast of New Orleans in 1950. There was The Great Caruso in 1951.
But then things began to go bad. In 1952, when he had already recorded the soundtrack for the motion picture adaptation of the Sigmund Romberg operetta The Student Prince, difficulties with MGM got him dropped from the film. The studio retained rights to his vocals and he was replaced on screen by Edmund Purdom. The singer had gained a lot of weight and, although he continued to perform, his period of great stardom was effectively over. He died in 1959 in Italy of a heart attack brought about by a blood clot in his leg.
Sony Masterworks, in concert with TCM and its broadcast of the Lanza films, has released The Toast of Hollywood, a two-CD collection of some of the best of the singer’s work.
Disc one, which includes by far the best material, is called “A Tenor at the Movies.” It mixes the tenor’s greatest hits, “Be My Love” and “The Loveliest Night of the Year,” with some of the most famous of classical arias from the Caruso biopic. Lanza’s voice is fabulous and his performances of “Che gelida manina” from La Boheme and “E lucevan le stele” from Tosca are nothing short of thrilling. There is also a wonderful “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from Verdi’s La Traviata, as well as “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto. At the time there had been some negative criticism of his interpretations from those who considered themselves “serious” music critics, but listening to Lanza then (and hearing him again now) it is hard to take their objections seriously. Indeed, it would have been nice to have a few more of his numerous operatic efforts in the current collection.
Other standouts on the first disc include favorites like “Because,” “Granada,” and the lovely “Because You’re Mine.” Selections from The Student Prince include the gorgeous “Serenade” and “Drink, Drink, Drink.” It might not have been a bad idea to include the whole sound track. It is beautiful music sung with finesse.
The material on the second disc, “A Tenor in Love” is oriented to a more popular sensibility, in so far as such a big voice justifies such an appeal. Lanza is at his best when he has the kind of music that allows him to unleash his voice. Powerhouse songs like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “If I Loved You” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” show what the singer was capable of doing.
The album does include a number of previously unreleased performances taken from the singer’s 1951-52 television show: “Day in, Day Out,” “For You Alone,” and “I’ll Never Love You,” which had originally been sung in The Toast of New Orleans. Of these previously unreleased pieces, the most interesting are Grieg’s “I Love Thee (Ich Liebe Dich)” and the Neapolitan song favored by operatic tenors over the years, “A vucchella.”
Those of you old enough to have worn out Lanza vinyl recordings over the years will find this two-CD set a goldmine. Something old, something new—it may not have all of your favorites, but it certainly has more than enough to keep Lanza fans smiling, and maybe make him a few more in the process.