Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy

My first operatic post here cannot be on anyone else than the person thanks to whom I listen to this beautiful genre of music. I had been acquainted to the performances of The Three Tenors, Bocelli, and others who are considered popular opera singers and who perhaps have set many people’s footsteps on the path of classical music. However, it was the smashing tour de force of Lanza’s voice, together with the incomparable heartfelt interpretation, what really caught my heart.

It is a twisted humour of the Fate that the one who could have become the greatest tenor in history died so prematurely, having made so few truly great recordings. His good looks turned out to be more of a curse, rather than a blessing. After a couple of years in Hollywood, everything started turning against him. The classical music critics started savaging him, resulting in a loss of his self-confidence, so vital for a performer.

The studio needed him to be slim for the filming, so he would put on weight for making of the soundtrack, and then quickly put it off for the shooting. As years passed, simple dieting would not work, so Lanza had to take medicines. He started having problems with phlebitis. Heavy drinking did not help his physical state.

After his moving to Italy, he made two more films and was planning to do more serious work. A TV spectacle with Maria Callas, or Pagliacci on stage of the Opera Roma season opening were on his schedule, but it was too late. Mario Lanza died on October 7th 1959 of pulmonary embolism, aged 38.

You’ll find a more detailed biography in Derek McGovern’s essay “Mario Lanza: A Radical Reassessment” here. A much more detailed biography is offered in the excellent book by Armando Cesari. You might also be interested in the Mario Lanza Google Group, the members of which are also Mr.McGovern and Mr.Cesari.

Lanza had no artistic guidance during his Hollywood years, plus many recordings were made quickly, without an established opera conductor. Moreover, most Lanza collections, especially those named “Lanza Gold” or “The Best of Lanza”, or similar to that, are simple packs of various recordings, no matter if good or bad. Even the only purely operatic CD “Mario Lanza – Opera Arias and Duets” is a decidedly mixed offering. It contains also lesser recordings, such as the Celeste Aida from the 1952 radio show. Why not the excellent one from The Great Caruso, with Peter Herman Adler conducting? Amor ti vieta, Nessun dorma, O soave fanciulla – ditto. In a situation where many opera aficionados don’t take him as a serious singer, there should be at least a CD of his true best.

If you’d like to know what his greatest recordings are, search here, a song-by-song review of the most popular CDs can be found here.

This is my absolute Lanza favourite. Un di all'azzurro spazio from Andrea Chenier. If Mozart's compositions are a proof of God's existence, this recording of Lanza's is double so.

Here you have some of Lanza's film best. Thanks to DiPlacido71 and Tenor65 for sharing.
The first clip is Dio, mi potevi scagliar from Verdi's Otello, as shown in the film Serenade, 1956.

The following video is of Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. It's a clip from Lanza's last film, paradoxically named "For the First Time", 1959.

Here we have Lanza in his youthful best: La donna e mobile from Verdi's Rigoletto, from the film The Great Caruso, 1951. Peter Herman Adler is conducting the soundtrack. The woman looking at him from the backstage is the famous Jarmila Novotná, who plays a selfish diva named Maria Selka. Unfortunately, their duet didn't make it to the final version of the film.


  1. Thank you, "Frufru", for an excellent, candid introduction to Mario Lanza. The vocal clips you've linked to here are wonderful, and thank you also for your links to my essay and to Armando Cesari's excellent Lanza bio.

    You may also be interested in visiting my Lanza Google site, which contains a number of rare operatic home & concert recordings.

    Derek McGovern

  2. Thank you "Frufru" for a positive article on Mario Lanza. You may visit our mario Lanza web site at lanzalegend.com and gain a lot of information as well as contribute to our message forum.
    Thank you again,

    Bob Dolfi
    PO Box 6742
    San Pedro, Ca. 90732

  3. Furfu: Do you know what happen to the Mario Lanza biopic? Billy Zane was signed up to do the film. I am not sure if Mr. Zane was to play Lanza (my guess is not! He does have a nice speaking voice though, like James Mason's.) Does anyone know about the film?

  4. @Anonymous: I'm no Lanza expert, Mr.McGovern is ;-) I fear nobody knows anything. It often happens that there are such talks, but the producers put the film on ice. However, I can't imagine they would do Lanza justice, without stressing the pop side or the mafia speculations. Many documentaries don't do him justice in the first place.

  5. Frufru & Anonymous: I think it's extremely unlikely that there'll be any Lanza film biography -- and that's probably a good thing! As you pointed out, Frufru, any Lanza film would inevitably be sensationalist and drag out the Mafia nonsense yet again -- and musically it wouldn't do Lanza justice either. There's also no guarantee that a Lanza film would even use Mario's singing voice, and without it there'd be no point to the film!

    I have high hopes, though, of a forthcoming radio documentary on Lanza. The person behind it is very knowledgeable about music, highly informed about Lanza, and an operatic tenor himself. I'll let you know more about it when everything's finalised. Alternatively, you can visit my site (http://groups.google.com/group/mariolanza) for details.

    Derek McGovern

  6. I think that he has one of the best voices in opera. It is a pity that Hollywood didn't know how to use him in the best way possible.

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  7. I was 16 years old when i first seen a Mario Lanza movie and loved him ever since i do have a photo of him when i was 16 and have all Marios recoreds,cdsiam 74 years now and will always love his songs thankyou .