An Evening with Richard Leech, in Tribute to Mario Lanza
Some people were concerned with the state of Deborah Voigt's voice in the Metropolitan Opera's Aïda. Others were perplexed over NYCO's "sound enhancement" system and the da capo arias of Händel's Ariodante. At the same time, I was puzzled about Skitch Henderson, The New York Pops, and the relationship of last evening's program--with the exception of Richard Leech's part--to the life and career of Mario Lanza. In fact, two of Lanza's grandchildren were in the audience representing the family, his widow unable to attend because of a conflicting Lanza tribute in England.
When Leech was not on stage, Henderson led the orchestra in several pieces that, to me, had no connection at all with either the life or career of Lanza: the overture to Hérold's Zampa, the Cortège from Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada, and selections from Oscar Straus's The Chocolate Soldier. Henderson told the audience that he included the Straus piece because operetta was much more popular and preponderant at the time of Lanza's affiliation with MGM. If he were to choose operetta highlights, why not The Student Prince, the film of which featured some of Lanza's finest singing, if not his physical presence.
When Leech was on stage, he sang a variety of songs and arias tied together with a biographical narrative, which Leech read. During the first half, his vocal selections were: "With a Song in My Heart" by Richard Rogers, Tosti's "La Serenata," "Non ti scordar di me," by De Curtis, and "Che gelida manina." The second half featured Leech's narrative, highlighted by "Be My Love" and "Because You're Mine," songs Lanza sang to Kathryn Grayson in two films, "Bonjour ma belle," an Anglo-French piece of fluff Lanza had sung for Queen Elizabeth, "Torna a Surriento" by De Curtis, Panzetti's "Come prima," an early example of successful crossover singing, "É lucevan le stelle," and "I'll Be Seeing You." As an encore, he regaled us with a thrilling version of "O sole mio."
I have never been a great fan of Pops orchestras, although everyone knows the Boston Pops as conducted by Arthur Fiedler and John Williams. So I'm not familiar with the protocol of such concerts. But I am familiar enough with concert protocol to know that, when an orchestra accompanies a singer, allowing him (or her) to be heard by the audience is a prime responsibility. Leech's voice is rich and large, and has, I thought, enough squillo to be heard in any opera house. So I kept wondering why he was often so hard to hear at Carnegie, a house world-famous for its excellent acoustics. Henderson also accompanied Leech at the piano in two or three selections. I never got a sense of partnership I usually get at a song recital, nor did I even get a sense of support. In fact, Henderson never even looked at Leech while accompanying him at the piano. Also, during the orchestrally accompanied selections, not only was Leech occasionally drowned out, but I found the orchestra slowing him down and sometimes going off on a tempo that, apparently, was not agreed upon by both conductor and soloist. I found that very disconcerting.
All in all, however, I enjoyed hearing Leech achieving this tribute to the man who inspired him and several other tenors to pursue a career in operatic singing. Not only did Leech reach a new audience, I think he also inspired several of its members to purchase tickets for the opera. Now, I'd better get my tickets for Mefistòfele and Tosca.
Howard L. Levin, aka Howard in Brooklyn