MARIO LANZA - Tenor in Exile by Roland L. Bessette    published by Amadeus Press. 270 pages $24:95 ISBN 1 57467 044 1



Mario Lanza died, at the tragically early age of thirty-eight, on Wednesday 7th October 1959. He had been hospitalised in Rome with phlebitis. A substantial piece of clot had broken away and lodged in his pulmonary artery. The death was listed as a heart attack. Several days later his body was flown home to America first to his home city of Philadelphia and then to Los Angeles.

His death was mourned by countless fans around the globe. Truly one of the greatest tenors of the century, his achievements are venerated by the Three Tenors: Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras who have all praised his influence on their careers.

Yet Lanza was a controversial figure and Bessette does not shrink from sketching in the dark side of his turbulent life. Born in South Philadelphia of Italian parentage, he was undisciplined and  self-indulgent, spoilt from the start by a doting mother. He learnt by emulation, listening over and over to gramophone records of opera stars;  he never learnt to sight read. But the voice was prodigious enough, in tone, strength and range, to impress the notoriously demanding conductor Koussevitzky at the beginning of his career.

The book tells of Lanza's meteoric rise to stardom first in concert, then through radio, and recordings for RCA, through to films. His record royalties approached $1 million per year. His career in Hollywood peaked early with his third film The Great Caruso which turned out to be MGM's biggest money-maker for 1951 and one of its most profitable films of all time. Yet his rude, crude, boorish behaviour on-set antagonised too many people: he would get into fights, curse and shout at technicians, insult his leading ladies, and urinate anywhere that was handy including, on one occasion, a lagoon that had to be refreshed, etc. Property owners came to regret Lanza as a tenant because of his wrecking sprees. Ultimately all Hollywood studios were loathe to hire him and he was obliged to move to Italy where his last two films were made (he made only eight films). He was self indulgent in terms of food (his figure ballooned alarmingly and he was endlessly working out and dieting), alcohol and women. Bette Lanza, his wife, unable to cope with his seductions of countless women, the competition from his domineering mother and the pressures of a successful Hollywood career, sought solace in drink and drugs and continually berated Mario instead of supporting him. Lanza was basically insecure and subject to fits of intense depression and paranoia which, coupled with weight and drink problems, caused him to cancel many engagements and to funk appearances including a lucrative and crucial engagement at Las Vegas. All this behaviour Bessette puts down to the clinical condition, manic depression.

One wonders what further miracles of singing might have been achieved not only in the films (Lanza had a flair for comedy), records and in concert but also in opera had the talent been studied, directed, and disciplined but then the raw energy, sensuality and spontaneity might have been sacrificed? A compulsive, yet often harrowing read, the book includes a selected bibliography, a compact disc discography and a filmography.


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