There's nothing wrong, of course, in preferring Kern to Verdi or Andrea Bocelli to Andrea Chénier, and I wouldn't want anyone to infer from the above that I'm knocking the great Broadway composers. Far from it! Rather, my point is that Mario Lanza was not simply a singer of popular ditties and Broadway standards, and should not be pigeonholed as such. It's bad enough that he's been marketed that way on CD, but for professed admirers of the man to overlook or (worse) damn with faint praise his other significant achievements in opera and Italian & Neapolitan song is to sell his legacy woefully short.
Lanza's greatness as an artist does not begin with the Coke Shows and end with the MGM Student Prince.
Unless you're SonyBMG's trusted Lanza CD compiler Derek Mannering, that is. Of the truly appalling Coke version of The Desert Song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vtCTTXnbP4), Mr. Mannering recently wrote that this is "the sort of singing that endeared [Lanza] to millions." Oh really? Aside from the stylistic awfulness of the recording, Mario's voice is poorly produced, strained and completely lacking in resonance here. It's about as far from being classic Lanza as one could imagine. But no matter: Mannering uses the Coke version of The Desert Song to indulge in one of his seemingly favourite pastimes: knocking the later Lanza. The Coke version may be a "wild ride", he asserts, but it is still preferable to the "dull" 1959 recording.
Well, in this instance I happen to agree with him about the 1959 version, but I'd still take it any day over a bad piece of singing from a tenor who in this instance is obviously not using his voice correctly. But this is not really about The Desert Song; it's about rubbishing the notion that Lanza's singing in his later years was often superior to that of his Coke/Hollywood period of the early 1950s. It's also about ridiculing the idea that Lanza continued to grow as an artist after The Student Prince, with the ultimate goal -- I infer -- of dismissing any suggestion that Lanza could ever have sustained a successful operatic stage career.
Thus we find Mannering regularly making condescending comments about the outstanding "Mario!" album ("I am not one of those fans who genuflect at the altar of the MARIO! LP’s perceived greatness," he recently sniffed), and arguing that any stylistic superiority in Lanza's singing during his latter years had nothing to do with his becoming a more "dedicated" singer, but was instead due in part to a loss of "suppleness and range." (Ah, so that's why the thrilling 1958 version of Canta Pe' Me is superior to the Coke version: it's that loss of vocal agility! Sheesh! Talk about diminishing the man's achievements!)
To support his thesis that Lanza could not have become a successful stage singer, Mannering conveniently overlooks the many instances in which Lanza performed outstandingly with the likes of Eugene Ormandy, Walter Herbert, Peter Herman Adler, Franco Ferrara et al, and instead cites the dubious example of Jean Paul Morel, a stern taskmaster with whom Lanza instantly clashed, as evidence that the tenor was unteachable. Moreover, he writes, Lanza's "mostly movie-related operatic selections" cannot be compared with the performances of "titans like Domingo or Bjoerling". Ironically, he even cites as supporting evidence the substandard Coke performance of the Flower Song -- which he himself chose for release on CD!! -- dismissing it (accurately) as "sloppy" -- and implying that it is yet another example of why Lanza's operatic recordings cannot be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned "titans".
Oh yes they can. It's irrelevant whether a piece of singing was recorded for a film, a radio show, at a concert, or in the studio. The only issue is whether the performance itself is good. And in many instances, whether Mannering likes it or not, Lanza's operatic recordings do indeed compare favourably with those of everyone from Caruso to Kaufmann. In a few instances, I would argue, Lanza's efforts actually surpass those of more celebrated operatic luminaries -- no mean feat for a man whom Mannering relentlessly describes as "not an opera singer" but a "popular tenor" who, he stated inaccurately on the
2005 BBC documentary, only sang opera "in films and on records."
But let me make it absolutely clear (given Mannering's penchant for making statements about "over-zealous" Lanza fans): no one is comparing the stage career of a man who only sang two operatic roles with that of Domingo, or anybody else.
I need to stop here, but I'm not by any means finished with this subject!!
Yes, I thought it was a very apt comparison that you made between what we often do here (analyzing Lanza recordings) and the avid sports fan who studies players' techniques minutely, etc. But how boring it would be if we all followed Mr. Mannering's wishes and refrained from such analysis! As Lindsay Perigo recently wrote on the Lanza Legend site, "It does not destroy the thrill of something great to come to understand the mechanics and physiology of that thrill. I can assure you, it enhances the thrill."
I think you're right, Lee Ann, that there has been a move away from "tired stereotypes limiting Lanza's musicality" -- and I strongly believe that Armando's book has done much to dispel the tiresome attitudes that prevailed for so long. The fact that Armando is deeply musical himself made a crucial difference. Yet until his book arrived in 2004, it was Roland Bessette's negative take on Lanza -- the 1999 Mario Lanza: Tenor in Exile -- that served as the main source of reference for critics and academics alike. I intensely disliked Bessette's book; here's a sampling of my reasons from an earlier post:
Every professional review I've read of [Bessette's] book has accepted [his] thesis. Here's a typical example from Lee Milazzo in the American Record Guide:
"Mario Lanza lived a life of excess. He drank so constantly and so heavily that he was usually uncontrollable and frequently unconscious. He ate in such binges that not even his 50-inch chest and 19-inch neck
could hold the pounds. He attempted to diet only after his weight ballooned to 300 pounds and then would starve himself to lose well over 100 pounds in too short a time. He pursued women as if he were a
hunter and they were prey. He was so impossible to work with that his name was a curse word in Hollywood and elsewhere. He abused his magnificent voice to such an extent that it had begun to disappear in
"If all of this makes Lanza sound like a monster, he was - as Roland L Bessette demonstrates in his biography of the tenor."
Milazzo also accepts Bessette's assertion that Lanza was "unteachable". But what is this based on? The bitter reminiscences of a second-rate conductor at Tanglewood, who conveniently fails to
explain how such a poor student could somehow learn an operatic role in six weeks and be lavishly praised by the New York Times for his efforts. Bessette makes no effort to balance the view of Lanza the
musical ignoramus with the testimony of the many gifted musicians who did work with him successfully, and who invariably came away praising his intelligence and musicality. So rather than quote conductors of
the calibre of a Ferrara or a Peter Herman Adler in support of Lanza, he instead quotes the daughter of a member of an orchestra with which Lanza recorded a popular ditty, recalling that her father said he was
"no Caruso". Big deal! I'd accept Victor De Sabata's view of Lanza any day over the the secondhand account of someone who was in Henri Rene's orchestra.
It's this kind of slant throughout the book that I most object to.
Bessette also never addresses the obvious contradiction inherent in the assertion that Lanza was musically incompetent, yet somehow managed to learn the role of Pinkerton or record, say, a brilliant duet and monologue from an opera as difficult as Otello.
There's more here on Bessette's book and the other Lanza bios: