|About this Recording
‘Some Enchanted Evening’ Original 1949-1954 Recordings
Today, the concept of a “crossover artist”who sings classical as well as pop may almost be a cliché.
But 55 years ago, when former Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza was cast in the lead of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, it made front-page headlines across America.
Pinza’s decision to “go legit” occurred shortly after his retirement from the Met, a partnership which had lasted for 22 years, 51 roles and 850 performances.
At that point, he was 57 years old and although his voice was past its peak operatic glory (New York Times music critic Howard Taubman described his final Don Giovanni as “saddening”) it was still far superior to many of the instruments heard on Broadway.
Consequently, in the last decade of his life, Pinza was to achieve greater fame than he had earned at the peak of his classical career.
He was born in Rome as Fortunato Pinza in 1892, the seventh child of a poverty-stricken family. After serving in World War I, he pursued fame as a professional cyclist and worked his way up to championship status.
It was his father who urged him to pursue his vocal studies and at the age of thirty, he made his debut at La Scala in 1922. By 1926, he had arrived at the Metropolitan Opera, where he remained until 1948.
Edwin Lester of the Los Angeles Civic Opera took a two-year exclusive contract on his services and brought him to the attention of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who were looking for someone with continental charm and a persuasive voice to play the mature French planter, Emile De Becque, opposite Mary Martin’s perky southern gamine, Nellie Forbush, in their upcoming musical South Pacific.
Although director Joshua Logan struggled with Pinza’s almost incomprensible English diction, the final performance galvanized audiences and was a major factor in the show’s smash hit status.
The canny, self-promoting Pinza parlayed his success as De Becque into a multi-tasking empire as a recording and film artist. He even ventured into television, with a 1951 variety series (“The Ezio Pinza Show”) as well as a short-lived live 1953 sitcom called “Bonino”. where he played a widowed opera singer with five children. (One of them was a ten-year-old named Van Dyke Parks, who later went on to a successful music career.)
But the failure of Pinza’s various film and television projects, as well as changing public tastes, caused interest in his work to decline after that.
He made one more successful appearance on Broadway, in the 1954 musical Fanny, but then his health began to fail. A series of coronary problems presaged a stroke on 1 May 1957. Six days later, he died quietly in his sleep of a heart attack.
The selections on this recording are all from the period 1949 through 1954, when Pinza’s newfound pop stardom was at its peak.
The first two are songs from South Pacific (Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine), presented in a mini-version of the musical that Pinza and co-star Mary Martin presented on the popular series,The Bell Telephone Hour, which was heard on NBC Radio from 1940 to 1958 before transferring to TV from 1959 to 1968.
Worth noting are the additional lyrics for This Nearly Was Mine not heard on the original cast recording.
Also from South Pacific, although not sung by Pinza in the show, is Bali Ha’i heard here in a studio version made six months after the show’s opening.
Pinza was known as a great romancer, onstage and off. Martin would often cut short his onstage embraces, prompting him to complain “When I kees, I kees!”. Consequently, the following two selections, from a January 1950 recording, play to that image.
Just A Kiss Apart is from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Te Amé (“I Loved You”) is a bilingual heart-throbber where it’s often difficult to tell if Pinza is singing in Spanish or English.
Pinza’s short-lived movie career began with the 1951 film,Mr. Imperium. A piece of MGM hokum about a playboy prince and a Hollywood star, it matched Pinza up with Lana Turner.
From that film,we hear a number that Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields composed for Pinza, Let Me Look At You as well as more Spanish sentiment, this one by Augustin Lara and Ray Gilbert, called You Belong To My Heart.
Pinza’s second feature film was far superior, the Preston Sturges romp, Strictly Dishonorable. In this one, Pinza got to play a womanizing opera star (no comment!), which gave him licence to sing an eclectic assortment of material, including the two numbers featured here, I’ll See You In My Dreams (Isham Jones –Gus Kahn) and Everything I Have Is Yours (Burton Lane–Harold Adamson).
Many of the other selections heard here are romantic standards from Broadway and Hollywood, showing Pinza’s fondness for the lush melodies of Jerome Kern:Yesterdays, All The Things You Are, The Way You Look Tonight.
He also does handsomely by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s I Still See Eliza from Paint Your Wagon and Cole Porter’s So In Love from Kiss Me, Kate.
His version of the haunting September Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, however, is marred by a “big ending” that conductor Johnny Green allowed Pinza to put on to show off his voice.
The popular “cowboy”songs of the period are reflected in a pair of numbers Pinza recorded with the Sons Of The Pioneers in 1951: The Little Ol’ State Of Texas and The Wind Is A Woman. In one photo of the period, you can even find Pinza sporting a highly inappropriate ten-gallon hat.
The final two selections are from Harold Rome’s beautiful score for Fanny, based on the trilogy of films by Marcel Pagnol about life and love in Marseilles.
This 1954 musical was highly successful at the time, but has never been successfully revived and the 1961 film version (with Charles Boyer in Pinza’s role) eliminated all of the music.
It’s comforting, then, to end this collection with two touching songs from Pinza’s final stage appearance.The first is the haunting Love Is A Very Light Thing, which talks about the nature of parental devotion.
And the conclusion is Welcome Home, a heartfelt ode to finding the location where you truly belong.
When Pinza speaks the lines “This isn’t a place to go away from, it’s a place to come back to”, you feel he’s talking about the stage – be it opera or musical theatre – where he could connect directly with his audience.
It’s only right that at the very end of a long and distinguished career, Ezio Pinza was welcomed home.
– Richard Ouzounian
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