Musically speaking, Lanza's best movies are undoubtedly The Great Caruso, Serenade and For The First Time. The Great Caruso is the most accessible of the three, and also has the best production values. Serenade is a much darker movie, and contains Lanza's most impressive dramatic singing. It does, however, suffer from an uneven script (see my review if you're interested).
Although a much lighter tale, For The First Time is similarly flawed. It contains the most perfectly balanced musical programme of any of the tenor's seven movies, but at the same time suffers from a poorly written script and some sloppy dubbing. As with The Seven Hills of Rome the preceding year, the original script was apparently a good one, but somewhere along the way a sugar coating was added to the story. The result was a highly sentimental tear-jerker with a good deal of banal dialogue.
It's to Lanza's credit, then, that For The First Time transcends its limitations and remains a watchable - and often moving - swansong from a musical giant. It helps that Lanza, just a year before his death, was in superb voice throughout - with one exception that I'll get to in a minute. Here his voice retains the baritonal depth of the Serenade period, but if anything his tenor is even rounder that it had been three years earlier. This is a voice of extraordinary depth and power. The high notes are faultless and retain the brilliance of old, but equally importantly his singing is more controlled and sensitive than in some of his boisterous earlier appearances. It must have helped that the operatic selections were recorded (and filmed) at the Rome Opera House, thus providing the tenor with a more artistic atmosphere than Hollywood could ever have afforded.
The Vesti La Giubba scene is extremely moving, both visually and vocally. Free of distracting histrionics, this is a very different rendition from his slightly hammy earlier performances of the aria. If you never thought Lanza could top his magnificent rendition from The Great Caruso, then be prepared for a big surprise. This is the perfect Canio voice - dark, rich and powerful - and the pathos in Lanza's voice as he sustains the climactic High A on the word "infranto" is all but overwhelming.
The other operatic selections are equally impressive - with the exception of the strained La Donna E Mobile that begins the movie. The Otello Finale, Grand March from Aida, and trio (E Voi Ridete) from Cosi Fan Tutte present an amazingly varied programme, and I can think of no other tenor capable of pulling off both the drama of Verdi and the lightness of Mozart with such effortless panache.
Among the lighter selections, Lanza also sings appealing versions of Come Prima (For The First Time), O Sole Mio, Schubert's Ave Maria, a Bavarian Drinking Song (Hofbrauhaus Song), and the pretty-though-brief O Mon Amour. There is also a tantalising snatch from Grieg's I Love Thee, with Lanza's gleaming tenor ringing out in all its glory.
Physically, he often appears tired, and the unhealthy bags under his eyes betray his failing health. Nevertheless, he looks terrific in certain scenes, and unusually for the tenor his relatively slim appearance remains more or less consistent throughout the movie.
Aside from the movie's vocal strengths, what really saves the film is the tender rapport between Lanza and his delightful co-star, Johanna Von Koczian. Their love for each other, quickly though it develops, seems convincing, and there are moments in which it is hard to believe that Lanza is only acting.
Corny moments aside (and there are plenty of them), For The First Time is a poignant farewell to Lanza, and a vocal feast at that.
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