Inspirational: Mario the Magician
I am fascinated by the fact that for roughly two generations now tenors, some of them really major stars (Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, etc) have claimed that it was hearing and seeing the magic of Mario Lanza in his MGM movies, especially The Great Caruso, that inspired them to take up opera.
Toscanini insisted from the time he conducted him in New Orleans as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly that Lanza had one of the greatest natural voices of the 20th century – right up there with Caruso’s, indeed. Now along comes the emerging Maltese star, Joseph Calleja, to confirm this legend. Calleja has made a recording called Be My Love as a tribute to Lanza and sings on it not only some of the great operatic arias that Lanza sang in his films, but also the most recognizable of hits written for those movies (such as The Toast of New Orleans, That Midnight Kiss, Serenade – all of which are worth re-evaluation by now). The tribute is lovely and the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Steven Mercurio excel in recreating the sound and feel of those MGM orchestrations that were Lanza’s backup. Calleja proves himself to be a worthy successor.
Listening to this disc is pure pleasure; and it also arouses sadness for and thoughts about the fate of Lanza. In his day it was not possible to do “crossover” and still be accepted by the world of the Met or La Scala, Vienna or the Paris Opera. You either went “popular” – and he had very successful radio shows and tours in his heyday that prove he could sustain entertaining for a whole evening and perform beautifully before live audiences – or you went “serious”. Nowadays, Calleja can sing Alfredo in La Traviata at the ROH and then a few months later perform popular tunes for a cheering audience at the BBC Proms, and everyone is delighted. It’s as if he he’s taken over the trajectory of Lanza’s career just where it left off and is taking it where it should have gone. (Lanza was preparing for a debut concert at Milan’s La Scala when he died tragically, aged only 38.)
Calleja has a lovely voice and much of the smiling charm of Lanza whose whole appealing persona seemed wrapped up in the sound he made. He’s even rather good looking but a bit chubby like Lanza – a weight problem being what got Lanza fired from filming The Student Prince after he had recorded the score (gorgeously). For me, Joseph Calleja’s disc serves two purposes – a wonderful introduction to the singer’s lighter side and his crowd-pleasing savvy; and also a nudge to us all to return to those RCA recordings made by Lanza himself. The sound of Lanza’s voice is unique and recognizable; the personality is positively loveable; the singing is simply gorgeous. Lanza had the God-given gift, but he also had the training. Toscanani was right. And in our era he could have had the kind of career that we believe and hope is in store for the sweet-sounding and charm-laden Calleja, whose technique and control are laudable and whose ability to handle and delight an audience seems effortless. And what a voice!
Joseph Calleja, Be My Love: A Tribute to Mario Lanza.
BBC Concert Orchestra/Steven Mercurio, Decca 478 3531