Enrico Caruso, 2023
This Week in Classical Music: February 20, 2023. Caruso. To our surprise, we realized that we’ve never written about Enrico Caruso, probably the greatest tenor of all time. (Come to think of it, we’ve never written about Beniamino Gigli either – we’ll certainly have to do it on his birthday, which comes in a month). Caruso was born in Naples on February 25th of 1873, so we’re celebrating not just any anniversary, but his 150th!
Caruso’s family was poor and had little formal education. As a boy, he had a nice but small voice, and one of his vocal teachers, upon first hearing him, pronounced that his voice was “too small and sounded like the wind whistling through the windows.“ Because he had little formal vocal training, his career had a bumpy start. Caruso had strained high notes and sounded more like a baritone than a tenor. His appearance at La Scala during the 1900–01 season in La bohème with Arturo Toscanini was not a success. Knowing how brilliant Caruso’s upper register was once he had fully developed his voice, it’s difficult to imagine his early struggles.
Caruso sang at several premieres: in 1897 in Milan, the title role in Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana, and in 1902 at the premiere of Adriana Lecouvreur, also by Cilea. It seems that somewhere around 1902 Caruso gained full control of his voice and from that point on went from one triumph to another, singing in Italy, then at the Convent Garden, and later at the Met. What used to be problematic had by then turned into an advantage: to quote Grove Music Dictionary, “the exceptional appeal of his voice was, in fact, based on the fusion of a baritone’s full, burnished timbre with a tenor’s smooth, silken finish, by turns brilliant and affecting.”
The Met became Caruso’s main stage: he sang 850 performances there and created 38 roles, some legendary, such as Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème and Cavaradossi in Tosca, and Radames in Verdi’s Aida. A unique aspect of Caruso’s career was his relationship with the nascent recording industry. In 1903 he signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company and later with the related Gramophone Company. During his time, all recordings were made acoustically, with the tenor singing into a metal horn (the electric recording was invented around 1925, after Caruso’s death). The records contained just 4 ½ minutes of music, which limited the repertoire Caruso could record (often music was edited to fit a record). And of course, these were not high-fidelity records, they distorted the timber of Caruso’s voice and lost some overtones. Still, they proved to be tremendously popular, helping both the industry and the singer. It was said that Caruso made the gramophone, and it made him.
During his career, Caruso partnered with the best singers of his generation, such as Nellie Melba, Amelita Galli-Curci, and Luisa Tetrazzini. He toured, triumphantly, across Europe and South America. Unfortunately, his career was short. In September of 1920, he fell ill with an undetermined internal pain; eventually got better but the December 11th performance of L’elisir d’amore had to be canceled after the first act, as Caruso suffered throat bleeding. It was later determined that he had pleurisy. His lungs were drained, and he started recuperating. Caruso returned to Naples in May of 1921, which probably was a mistake: his care there was inadequate, and he died on August 2nd of 1921.
With all the deficiencies of the old recording, we still can enjoy Caruso’s magnificent voice. Here are several of them. Se quel guerrier io fossi! Celeste Aida, from Act 1 of Verdi’s Aida; Una furtiva lagrima, from Act 2 of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; La donna è mobile from Act 3 of Verdi’s Rigoletto; Ella mi fu Rapita…parmi veder le lagrime, from Act 2 of the same opera; Addio alla madre, from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana; and Vesti la giubba from Act 1 of I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo.