Yet another Icarus: Lanza

The world shows us so many Icaruses: gifted people who fly too high too fast, and are soon burned by the extent of their own success, spiralling irrevocably into addiction, debt, ill health or other self-destructive behaviours. Mario Lanza’s immense promise as a talented young tenor in the Forties drew him into an increasingly ill-starred Hollywood career which took acrimonious turns throughout the Fifties, and by 1959 he was dead, aged 38. Whenever life’s pressures began to bite, Lanza turned to drink and food for comfort, and soon fell a sad victim to the twin evils of alcoholism and overeating. Miraculously, his voice did not appear to sustain obvious damage from either, but his body clearly could not stay the course, and in the end it was a heart attack which killed him so young. His devastated wife Betty died of a drug overdose only a few months later, leaving behind their four young children to be brought up by Lanza’s parents.

Mario Lanza

Mario Lanza in action

Andrew Bain’s Lanza show (and it is very much a show, gleaming with schmaltz) begins at the end of Lanza’s life, as he lies sedated on a bed in the Valle Giulia clinic in Rome. The sedation allows Lanza to dream, and his dream helpfully tells us the sequential story of his life, from his Italian-American childhood in Philadelphia, through the bumps of his increasingly desperate and unfortunate career, to the present, final moment. A baby grand piano (played sensitively by Tsivi Sharett, hidden in shadow) stands to one side of the stage, partially covered in a red velvet cloth, and bears an often-poured bottle of brandy, some red roses, a photo of Lanza’s wife, Betty, and papers which turn out to be the contracts Lanza was “not so good at reading”. As Bain acts and narrates each phase of Lanza’s life, the episodes are further illustrated by various female characters (all played with verve and often brittle energy by actress Julie Rose Smith, who also sings), and a signature Lanza hit from that period, sung by Bain: so, we hear “Ave Maria” as he sings in church as a young man, “E lucevan le stelle” when he falls in love with his wife, many other show tunes, and finally, and most poignantly, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, as he faces the dawning realisation that his success has fled, and life is very unlikely to come right after all.

Bain sounded far more comfortable with the show tune side of Lanza’s repertoire: songs like “Because you’re mine” and “Without a song” came across with natural smoothness, charm and warmth. Though able to produce significant volume and vocal heft when required, tightness caused Bain occasional problems at both ends of his range, while his phrasing left much to be desired in the composed vocal landscape of “E lucevan le stelle”, and a later unwise foray into “Addio fiorito asil” only demonstrated why no one should ever take Puccini for granted. The early Italian songs, like “O Sole Mio”, had simple charm, but lacked sincere expressive power: the trouble with those songs is that they are so familiar that they need much more energy and skill (as Jonas Kaufmann has recently proved) to catch our ear afresh.

Bain’s very straightforward, linear approach to Lanza’s life, while an understandable choice, feels rather too simplistic to be interesting, and the episodes all pass so quickly that few of them can establish much emotional depth. It’s consequently not until the second half (though the show is only an hour long, it still surprisingly contains an interval) that the human drama really begins to crackle. Two key moments caught my eye: a brilliantly heartless interview with Hedda Hopper, where Lanza’s own hopes of a return to the opera stage are repeatedly and cruelly ignored, to tragic effect; and Lanza’s self-loathing as he faces the prospect of singing in a casino, wonders what his great hero Caruso would think, and decides (disastrously) to get drunk instead. Still, it’s hard to know who this show is aimed at, and harder still to see why Bain feels this story so worth telling: his performance is undoubtedly full of passion and commitment. If it’s simply a biopic-like excuse to revive Lanza as a character for his fans, then it absolutely does the job. As someone who came to the show knowing little about Lanza, it certainly kindled a mild and passing interest in the man, and his final predicament. But, as an illustration of the price of fame, there are many others available: all more intimate, more tragic and more articulate than this; and, as an artwork, the evening falls notably short.

Rating: 2 stars

Reviewed at the Bridewell Theatre, London on 2 August 2017

Part of Opera in the City Festival

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