The spring of 2002 has seen much discussion in the
UK’s distinguished 'Opera Magazine', and elsewhere since the 'Brit Award'
to populist 'opera' singer Russell Watson. What is the difference between
such artists and those who might truly claim the designation by virtue
of performing in complete operas on stage rather than merely singing
arias from operas. Certainly many of the populist singers do not have
the vocal equipment to fill a moderate sized hall without amplification
let alone an opera house, and as to having the vocal stamina to last
a complete performance, no chance! Such arguments are not new and often
raged around the singer featured on this disc.
Born Alfred Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia in the year
Caruso died, the young boy was brought up on a diet of the legendary
tenor by his mother whose name he adopted. Lanza was 'discovered', at
least for the first time, by the renowned Russian born conductor Koussevitsky
in 1940, but his really big break came in 1947 when he substituted for
Ferruccio Tagliavini at a Hollywood Bowl Concert. MGM offered a contract
and Lanza became one of the biggest stars of Hollywood. This easy access
to big money and fame was not conducive to the discipline of vocal training
that might have turned his natural tenor into a decent, proper, opera
singer, In the event drink and drugs, as well as being pursued by the
taxman, brought a premature death in Rome where he had retreated in
pursuit of a more laid-back lifestyle. It was in Rome that he made his
last two films.
This collection shows Lanza's strengths and weaknesses.
His singing always had a huge emotional input and in some of the classical
operatic arias featured here it is laid on with an inappropriately heavy
trowel. This gives an emotional intensity far beyond what was intended
to be conveyed (tr7). The tone is often squeezed and only rarely do
we hear a phrase caressed or treated to 'mezza voce'. The start of tr8,
'Cielo e mar' from Ponchielli's La Gioconda illustrates what
might have been given self-discipline and decent training. Whilst the
open-throated tone of the voice is not displeasing, one longs for smoothness
of legato and less over-held high notes. The contribution of the fluttery
Elaine Malbin to tracks 4 and 13 is a drawback.
In the populist field Lanza found his true metier.
In tr16 he lightens his tone to a very effective near, but pure, croon.
With good arrangements and choral backing it would have been better
if more of this disc had had been based around this repertoire. That
being said, those of a certain age who gloried in Lanza as 'The Great
Caruso' will find much to justify the cost, and in 'Be My Love'
(tr18) and 'Granada' (tr20). which get the full Lanza treatment
of emotional communication and held high notes, they can glory in nostalgia
and hang the purists who worry too much about 'proper' opera singers;
The recording sounds well albeit with some mild distortion
on some of the operatic tracks. The playing time is generous and the
booklet note rather sycophantic.
Robert J Farr