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Mario Lanza's Secret, KASS 'Nessun Dorma!'
Submitted by Lindsay Perigo on Mon, 2006-04-24 08:27
Fifty-one years ago, long before Luciano Pavarotti made it a household aria, Mario Lanza had recorded the great and demanding Nessun Dorma for the soundtrack of one of his movies. Serenade has a Fountainhead-like plot, except that the Dominique who wishes to destroy Roark-Lanza really means it, and only ever cultivated him with a view to destroying him, as she had destroyed a long line of artists before him just because they were talented and in danger of being successful. How had she done it? By sponsoring them, seducing them, declaring her undying love, securing their besotted devotion—and then, just when they were poised for a career breakthrough, dumping them ignominiously from a great height. When Roark-Lanza survives her attempt to wreck him thus, and shows every sign of having gotten over her and being on the comeback trail, she goes after him again. Impresario Vincent Price remarks, "I'm curious, my dear. It's not like you to work your victims over a second time." She (Joan Fontaine) responds, "Has it ever occurred to you that I might really love him?" Price, wryly: "Frankly, my dear, no, it hasn't." (Price has already commented to Lanza on Fontaine's predilection for buying up masterpieces just to hide them in dank cellars.) You will readily appreciate, dear reader, how it was fitting that melodramatic arias like Nessun Dorma should abound in Serenade. Damnably, Mario's rendering of it was below par.
Some context: Nessun Dorma is sung by the hero of the opera (Turandot), Calaf, after he has given correct answers to the notorious three riddles posed by the icy Princess Turandot to all her would-be suitors. He has thereby saved himself from the fate that befalls all who give wrong answers, execution (the opera begins with a hapless, failed wannabe being carted off to meet his demise). Calaf, however, has given the man-hating Turandot an out—if she can discover his name by dawn, he'll forfeit his life anyway. In the aria, he muses on the edict that Turandot has sent out: None shall sleep ["Nessun Dorma"] until his name is revealed, and looks forward to victory at dawn: "Vincero!" ("I shall conquer!")
For the benefit of those who might like to print this essay out and play the aria while following the lyrics, here they are:
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
(None must sleep! None must sleep!
Ma il mio mistero e chiuso in me,
(But my mystery is locked within me,
Ed il mio bacio sciogliera il silenzio
(And my kiss will break the silence
Dilegua, o notte!
(Vanish, o night!
So just what was wrong with Mario's recording? Little things that cumulatively meant disappointment. He blares sharp (above the note) on the opening phrase; he breaks the vocal line in the first succession of High As ("bocca lo diro"); he mangles the pronunciation of "tramontate" in the second batch of High As; he is horribly sharp in the second two syllables of the first "Vincero"; he loses intensity on the penultimate, climactic note and veritably falls off the very last one. Those of us who love Lanza and know what he could have done with this aria have remonstrated with his ghost for years, "Dammit, Mario, why didn't you do a second take?!"
Well, blow me down with a High C, it turns out that he did. Or rather, he'd already done it. Yes, the take that was used in the movie and released on the soundtrack recording was a second take—that was much inferior to the first! In the first, there's still the occasional (slight) sharpness, but none of the other problems of the second parlay. As I've had occasion to remark elsewhere, in this glorious first attempt he kicks Principessa's cold ass to the other side of the moon, dramatically speaking; musically, it's a treat, with delightful rubati and an electrifying climax. As he alights on the last syllable of the penultimate Vincero! Mario is fair exulting, "Here I come, ready or not!" Then he duly "comes," orgasmically nailing the last Vincero! in a way that would drive a live audience delirious.
I played this take the other night to a live audience that included SOLO's resident esthetician, Peter Cresswell. His reaction? "Fuck! Where has that been all these years?!"
Like so many Mario (or Elvis, or anyone) treasures, it's been hidden away in the RCA vaults. But now it's out there, thanks to Damon Lanza Productions, who've released the Serenade soundtrack with the first take as well as the second. (Damon is Mario's son.) Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
So why was the inferior second take the one that was released? Who knows?! Maybe it's the better voice/orchestra balance (they brought Mario's voice forward the second time). Maybe it's because the first take was under-bassed. Maybe it's because the second take deleted the rubati and galloped through the thing at a sizzling pace for a movie that was over-shot.
Or maybe Dominique Francon-Fontaine was in charge of the selections!
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