Icon: Enrico Caruso

Tully Potter
Friday, February 11, 2022

Tully Potter describes the plentiful gifts of this tenor, whom he first encountered as a boy – from an exceptional opulence of tone to vivid acting ability in both comic and tragic roles

Enrico Caruso (photo: Granger/Bridgeman Images)

Many years ago, in far-off South Africa, a little boy heard his elders discussing The Great Caruso. Was this something to do with Robinson Crusoe? They explained that it was a film about a legendary singer.

Not long after, he was rummaging through piles of 10-inch 78s in the family record cupboard. Unlike the 12-inch discs, housed in brown paper sleeves or albums, these were in higgledy-piggledy order: eight would be grabbed at a time to be plonked on the record changer; you might hear anything from Richard Tauber to Danny Kaye to Roberto Inglez to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

He found two red-label HMVs by ‘Enrico Caruso’. Could this be the man? One was a coupling of O sole mio and ‘La donna è mobile’ (with modern orchestra grafted on), the other the tenor arias from Tosca.

His beautiful ‘mezza voce’ has the most individual, haunting timbre … his soft singing in ‘Una furtiva’ is exquisite

He tried them on his wind-up Columbia portable. The two popular numbers were superb but the Tosca disc was the thing. Wonderful as ‘Recondita armonia’ was, in ‘E lucevan le stelle’ the singer made contact with some god-like power at the climactic phrase, inserting a perfectly timed almost-sob at the words ‘dai veli’. Our lad was launched on a quest for every Caruso 78 or LP within the scope of his pocket money.

Said lad was, of course, my inchoate self, but nothing has changed. The voice and art of Caruso still lift me on to a higher plane, and newcomers really should make the effort to ‘tune in’. For a slight effort is involved: Caruso never made it into the microphone era and some of his best singing is accompanied by a tinkling studio piano or brass-reinforced orchestra. Get over that hurdle and you are rewarded by the greatest singer ever to make records.

Consider his gifts. Most musicians, in my experience, are rhythm kings or phrase-makers. Caruso bestrode both extremes, preternaturally endowed with rhythm and phrasing. He was equally successful in comedy and tragedy and his vocal acting leaps vividly off his discs – ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Pagliacci sold more than a million. He was blessed with exceptional opulence of tone. His singing seemed to get freer and easier the higher he went up the scale, so perfect was his placement. Never one for throwing off high Cs and Ds, he nevertheless had a formidable top register. Lower notes were firm, of good quality. He retained a rare flexibility, even when his voice had become darker, more dramatic.

But for me, what marks him out is his beautiful half-voice, or mezza voce; it has a most individual, haunting timbre. As early as 1904, he recorded ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ on one 10-inch matrix and one 12-inch: in the second verse his soft singing, never crooned but floated on the breath, is exquisite.

The operatic excerpts teem with unforgettable mezza voce phrases, illuminating a solo such as Meyerbeer’s aria with viola obbligato, ‘Bianca al par’ (Les Huguenots), or shining out in the midst of an ensemble: but the songs can be even more seductive and he never lost his propensity for singing well within his capabilities: Tosti’s A vucchella and Donaudy’s Vaghissima sembianza are late recordings.

Caruso was a collegiate artist who loved duetting with his friend Antonio Scotti or close colleagues such as Geraldine Farrar. His ensemble discs feature the finest Met singers: his final versions of the Rigoletto quartet and Lucia sextet with Galli-Curci, Perini, De Luca, Journet et al are perhaps the best of all. The trio from I Lombardi with Alda and Journet is pure gold.

He was the definitive tenor for Donizetti and Verdi – even recording Macduff’s aria from Macbeth – but also invented the ‘verismo tenor’. We have plentiful excerpts from Aida, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, Faust, Martha, La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Andrea Chénier. Religious music is sung with a believer’s intensity: Verdi’s ‘Ingemisco’ from the Requiem has immense breadth, Niedermeyer’s Pietà, Signore! features a long trill at the end of each verse. His last two records are from Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle.

Caruso’s sense of humour – he was a talented caricaturist – can be heard on Pasadas’s Noche feliz. His high spirits could spill over into practical jokes, especially on tours with the Metropolitan Opera – one of my favourite stories is of him bribing a stagehand to nail Marchesa Attavanti’s fan to the floor in Tosca, so that Scotti as Scarpia couldn’t pick it up.

He died too soon but we hear his influence in the most unlikely places – the Welsh tenor in the ‘Go Compare’ adverts stole the idea from Caruso’s rumbustious singing (in English and French) of George M Cohan’s World War I recruiting song Over There.

Defining moments

1873 – Born Naples, February 25

At 10, goes to school, sings in choir (alto soloist), studies music in evenings; from age 13 works as draughtsman, then mechanic; vocal studies aged 17 to 20 with Guglielmo Vergine; army service at 20 – released to pursue singing career.

1895 – Operatic debut, March 15

L’Amico Francesco (Morelli) – Teatro Nuovo, Naples; a year later, receives coaching from conductor Vincenzo Lombardi. Multiple premieres follow: L’Arlesiana, Fedora – Teatro Lirico, Milan (1897, 1898); Le Maschere, Germania – La Scala (1901, 1902).

1902 – First G&T recordings, Milan, April 11

Also makes London debut, Covent Garden, with Rigoletto (May 14), plus seven more operas that season; in addition, appears in Adriana Lecouvreur premiere – Teatro Lirico (November 6).

1903 – New York debut, November 23

Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, his lifelong artistic home; also appears in other US cities.

1904 – First Victor Talking Machine Company recording, New York, February 1

Henceforth is an exclusive Victor artist. The same year, he buys villa near Florence; from 1906 has suite in Knickerbocker Hotel, New York.

1909 – Successful operation, Milan

Node removed from vocal cord in follow-up to 1906 surgery on other cord.

1910 – La fanciulla del West premiere, Met, December 10

No cast recordings made, owing to veto by publisher Tito Ricordi.

1920 – Final Victor recording session, Camden, NJ, September 16

Haemorrhages from throat during performance of L’elisir d’amore – Brooklyn Academy (December 11); is in agony for his final opera appearance (La Juive – Met (December 24).

1921 – Death

After much suffering, Caruso dies at Hotel Vesuvio, Naples, August 2.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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