Well, aren't BMG full of surprises? Just when they tell us that, as far as Mario Lanza CD releases are concerned, that's it for a while, they spring one on us. 'When Day Is Done' was a complete surprise to most. Now, independent producer and Soundies President Kevin Parks has done it again (and may the gods of music bless him and BMG for it!) with this new BMG licensed and produced incarnation with 'Mario Lanza In Hollywood - 17 great songs from Lanza's first MGM pictures That Midnight Kiss & The Toast of New Orleans.'
This is not soundtrack material, but rather Mario's original RCA studio recordings of songs & arias used in both movies (and some that weren't!). Fans of the old monophonic sound quality will find the reproduction eminently satisfying - it is warm & lush throughout, with Mario's voice well forward - but not at the expense of orchestral detail. With the possible exception of the Boheme aria, these recordings will probably never sound better. They are a testament to the Lanza voice at its most electric.
Che Gelida Manina it is that kicks off the 'Midnight Kiss' selections - which is curious, since it wasn't in the movie, but who's complaining?! This comes complete with intermittent flutter & an annoying sound drop-out at the words "Che cosa faccio? Scrivo. E come vivo?" - which suggests that these are now permanent flaws in the master-tape. But a thrilling performance it remains. For more detailed comment, see my review of the 'Encore!' CD.
The magnificent Mamma Mia Che Vo' Sape follows. Simultaneously plaintive & expansive. Listen to the way Mario moves from an uncovered minor 6th of the scale to a covered tonic note on the 'A' vowel in the penultimate phrase, with no loss of quality & no blatant shifting of gear.
And now for something completely different! Two lighter songs, in English, sung with as sweet & well-sustained mezza-voce as you'll hear anywhere - I Know, I Know and They Didn't Believe Me. Insomniacs, try these as a dreamily pleasant way to drift off - guaranteed no harmful side-effects. But make sure someone is there to turn your machine off at their conclusion, or you'll be blasted to the ceiling as Mario goes back into volcanic mode in Core 'Ngrato. Again, it wasn't in the movie, but who cares?!
Celeste Aida completes the 'Midnight Kiss' selections - sung very "straight," soon to be surpassed in colour & interpretation by Mario's 'Great Caruso' soundtrack recording(s) of this aria.
A little more care has gone into the 'Toast' material - all the songs & arias presented here were in the movie, & they are presented in the order in which they appeared, beginning with the title song. I believe this is its first appearance since the 'Younger Than Springtime' album thirty years ago! Mario is in glorious voice, soaring up to some beautiful High As ("raise your voice in the night"), including the last note, where he demonstrates his unusual ability to go high on difficult vowels ('e' in this case) without distorting them.
The best-selling Be My Love follows - reproduction-wise, it has never sounded better.
Then comes an astonishing tour de force. It's easy to dismiss Tina-Lina as a silly song. Sung by anyone else it probably would sound very silly. But Mario unleashes every trick in the book to make it, not just believable, but UNbelievable, ducking & weaving, leaping & diving like a veritable Magic Johnson of the music game, clinching his display with a real slam-dunker of a High C. Truly astonishing!
Boom Biddy Boom, which follows, is nearly as exciting. Dammit, these songs are FUN, & who better to convey that than Mario?
The Flower Song is up next - again, see the 'Encore!' review. Then comes O Paradiso, with Mario in beautiful voice. His first lift from tonic-to-third on the word "Tu" is terrifyingly spectacular. Near the end, however, he loses it a little, with such a bad swallowing of the last note that one wonders why a retake of just the last phrase was not done. Still, it's great to see this performance reappear after so many years, as with M'Appari, which follows - one of Mario's finest operatic recordings. A puzzle - why did conductor Callinicos not have the orchestra play the ending as written? Mercifully, the two utterly superfluous chords that concluded the original recording are here deleted.
There's not a great deal to be said about I'll Never Love You - Mario is in great voice, but his soundtrack recording, now available on the Rhino CD also reviewed elsewhere on this site, is more delicate, and, well ... loving!
Then comes the Traviata drinking song. Mario's intonation is rather bleary at the outset, suggesting he might have taken the title a little seriously that day. His 19-year-old partner, Elaine Malbin, certainly could have shown him a thing or two about the grace notes that she observes so conscientiously but which he makes no serious attempt at. Still, it's a vitality-filled performance by all, orchestra & chorus included.
And so to the Bayou Lullaby. It's the "Magic Johnson" Mario again, soaring to some superhuman high notes & then tapering back to a whisper with a beautiful soft High G to close. Richard Tauber, eat your heart out!
Finally, the Butterfly duet, recorded at the same time as the Traviata Brindisi. Again, Mario's Pinkerton shows signs of the whiskey he's just been sharing with the American Consul, but hell, are these kids having a good time! Malbin's taut vibrato makes for an ideal Butterfly. Mario, in his anxiety to get her into the bedroom, rides roughshod over the Puccini (and everything else in sight, one imagines). The explosive cymbal clash at the conclusion of their searing High C leaves absolutely no doubt as to what will happen next - lovemaking to set off another Nagasaki earthquake. A fitting climax!
The CD is attractively presented, with the original LP covers reproduced on the front. Liner notes are reasonable, though marred by some familiar myths - "truck driver," "Mafia murder," etc.. But all is redeemed when The Voice pours forth!
This project owes everything to Mr. Kevin Parks, the President of Soundies, so to Mr. Parks let us all say, in Mario-like fortissimo, "Thank you for this stunning surprise - may there be many more."