The Great Caruso

Born in obscurity, Enrico Caruso was established as opera's first global superstar by the time he was forty years old. CONRAD L. OSBORNE looks at the legacy of the man who redefined what it meant to be a tenor.

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Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives
He couldn't always do everything better than everyone else. But Caruso remains the reference point.
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Caruso as Rodolfo in La Bohème, an opera that entered his Met repertory in December 1903, during his debut season wih the company
Mishkin/Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives
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Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives

It started for me — as for many, I'm sure — with my father's record collection, and since I'm speaking now of the early 1940s, these were 78rpm records. They were housed on a closet shelf in albums designed to look like the volumes of an elegantly bound encyclopedia, their dark-brown alphabetized bindings complete with raised welts and gold stamping. There were eight or ten in all, twelve sleeves per album, each of which, when full, weighed in at thirteen pounds.

My father was a bass who sang in opera and oratorio around the Denver area. But his collection wasn't bass-heavy. Though he had his Pinza and Chaliapin, there were also Galli-Curci, Homer and Gluck; some Gigli, McCormack, Crooks and (oddly) Florencio Constantino; Tibbett (Porgy and Bess with Helen Jepson — and don't knock if it you haven't heard it) and Reinald Werrenrath. And, of course, several Carusos. Some of these were left behind, and a few broken in shipment, when our family moved East. One Caruso survived — Victrola 6028, the "Cujus Animam" from Rossini's Stabat Mater on Side A, the "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem on B. Touches of greying tell us which side was more frequently played — the Rossini, with its jaunty rhythm, perilous ascents and falsetto high D-flat louder and deeper than is dreamt of in any countertenor's philosophy. 

I played and loved everything in the collection, but I could not yet fully appreciate the perfect poise of Gluck, the flawless legato and settled richness of Homer, the purity and agility of Galli-Curci. I was drawn to Crooks's are-you-sure-you-want-to-try-that assault on the serenade from The Student Prince (and truly, it is both scary and terrific, like some of early di Stefano), the overt dramatizations of Tibbett and Chaliapin, and Caruso's conquest of the Rossinian heights. I understood from the start that, captivating though the others were, Caruso was the greatest of the tenors. This was in part because I was told so, and in part because of books. Except for Angel Mo' and her Son, the life story of the fine African–American tenor Roland Hayes, the only books about a singer in my parents' small but fairly classy library were Pierre Key's Enrico Caruso (the first full-length biography) and Dorothy Caruso's Enrico Caruso, His Life and Death. The presence of these volumes, and these alone, was clear evidence of sovereign standing, and I absorbed the story of striving and victory and tragedy as if it had been my own. But beyond the tutelage and the books, I could hear that Caruso was separated from the others by a sort of quantitative measure — fearless like Crooks and dulcet like Gigli, but mightier. No doubt this awareness meshed with preadolescent power fantasies. Caruso was a sports hero, like Bobby Feller. It was also the beginning of a temperamental affinity for voices with some fight in them.

Soon, I began checking into Family Circle standing room, where Italians with long memories would argue the merits of Gigli, Lauri-Volpi and Martinelli, but when it came to Caruso, they would only roll their eyes or emit little plosive puffs: he was, literally, beyond comparison. I also started using my allowance, and all birthday and Christmas requests, to acquire more records. These included my favorites among singers I was seeing at the Met and hearing over the air (Björling and Warren and — we're into adolescence now — all-American girls Patrice Munsel and Dorothy Kirsten), but a persistent filling-in of Caruso and Chaliapin, too. In those days, the more upscale record shops had listening booths — roomy, glass-enclosed cubicles with padded benches. Comfortably installed, I'd listen to four or five double-sided 78s, sometimes rehearing to make sure, before selecting the one or two my funds would allow. At the beginning, my father would often accompany me and, as was the case when we listened at home, offer bits of criticism. Auditioning Gigli's tonally ravishing "M'apparì" one day at the Schirmer's in downtown Brooklyn, I let escape a murmur of approbation as that unique suede timbre led lingeringly up into the return of the tune — "e strazia (breath) il c-or…. M'appa-a-rì," and on. "Ah," said my father, "but that's just where Caruso surpasses him."

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Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives

I'm still of two minds about that, but there is no question of Caruso's superiority in the six bars that follow, which he purls through at a slow tempo on a single breath, back and forth across the passaggioat just a tick more than half-voice, the tone pure and the line seamless, and without Gigli's showerings of aspirates and soblets. One's a lovely indulgence; the other sets a standard. To recognize the distinction, one learns to listen closely; to compare; to go back and listen again; to pay attention to different things each time.


Caruso made his first records in Milan, in 1902. In 1904, the tenor began his professional relationship with the Victor Talking Machine Company, an association that would yield the bulk of his recorded work — more than 250 commercial recordings before Caruso's last studio session, in the autumn of 1920. All of Caruso's records were made via the acoustic process; the tenor died in 1921, before Victor and other major companies had switched to electrical recording equipment in the mid-1920s. Caruso's recordings remained in print throughout the twentieth century, thanks to LP reissues that offered the tenor’s work in a variety of compilations.
The methods by which Caruso's recordings were "cleaned up" in the LP era remain controversial; Caruso's legacy is perhaps best sampled on CD. Naxos's boxed set of twelve CDs, Enrico Caruso: The Complete Recordings (1902–1920), superbly engineered and restored by Ward Marston, contains all of the performances mentioned in Conrad L. Osborne's article. The Naxos edition is also available in individual volumes, which group the tenor's output in chronological order.
Caruso's 1918 silent film, My Cousin, in which the tenor plays the dual role of Tommasso, a poor sculptor, and his cousin Caroli, a star tenor, was released on DVD by BMG in 2004.
— F.P.D.

Not long into my collecting career, the LP made its debut, a single featherweight disc holding eight or nine pounds' worth of Caruso or Gigli, a reptilian tone arm floating jewel-tipped on its surface at a pressure measured in grams, not ounces — and no Scotch-taping a nickel on top to make it track. The end of little packets of steel or cactus needles. The end of the listening booth. My holdings of a given artist could now double or triple with a single purchase, and the effort to string together everything available of Caruso's Radamès or Chaliapin's Boris could be leapt past in a bound by the gods at Victor — who, however, did not always give ear to correct pitch. Just at stereo's dawn, I began reviewing records. Caruso collections came my way from the reissue labels. They varied in quality of source material and sophistication of transfer techniques, but they extended my acquaintance with the Caruso discography to over half the total. As my close-listening context broadened, I came closer to placing Caruso in the perspective of all the singing we have known for 110 years now. He was human. He couldn't always do everything better than everyone else. But he remains the reference point. 

It is frustrating, of course, that "Caruso" is only a voice on early records. So I cannot inarguably compare him with the three tenors I have heard in live performance that, in their quite different ways, I place above all others (Melchior, Björling and Corelli; I leave aside Gigli and Roswaenge, whom I experienced only in recital, and at the end). There are a few others who are at least plausible candidates (omitting purely lyric or leggiero voices, which must be compared only with one another) — Tucker, Del Monaco, Bergonzi, Vickers, later Pavarotti and Domingo. Frustrating, too, that Caruso's physical presence consists of a few dozen black-and-white still photographs; his delightful, keen caricatures (that is his hand); some primitive newsreel and home-movie clips; and two silent films that flopped. But if the ear is accustomed to acoustical recordings and aware of their limitations, has some depth of experience with voices that went through the transition to electrical recordings and subsequent developments, and can relate all this to ongoing live performance, one can be fairly confident about what it hears. And amidst the meager evidence, the eye can surely spot some clues.

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The tenor in rehearsal as Lionel in Martha at the Metropolitan Opera, 1915
Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives

If I were to try to describe the salient qualities and capabilities of Caruso's singing in first-impression terms, I would have to include the evenness of line, economy of breath, smoothness of register transition and precision of dynamic control (in sum: extraordinary poise) already noted in the little Martha passage. I would probably also resort to the fabric-and-metal language beloved of nineteenth-century professional auditors — "molten gold wrapped in plush velvet," or some such. I'd point to the impression of unmediated emission — nothing between Caruso's insides and mine, or, as Tetrazzini put it, the "impertinence" with which he flings the tone out at us. Poised impertinence? Yes, exactly. But even more basic than these, as I was reminded recently by the reactions of a vocally knowledgeable but Caruso-deprived friend for whom I played the dashing 1908 "Questa o quella," is the baritonal richness of the lower and middle range, from which those molten high notes emerge with improbable ease. Yet this is nothing like the overall darkness of many postwar tenors such as Vinay (a hoisted baritone), McCracken, Giacomini, Cura, et al., or the dark-below, bright-above structures of, say, Marcello Giordani or the more-together Jonas Kaufmann. Unlike Melchior, Vinay and Bergonzi, Caruso was never taken for anything but a tenor, even when, upon first graduating from the cafés and churches of Naples to the opera stage in the mid-1890s, he found his voice "short" for many roles and insecure on the upper pitches he could reach.

It's always fascinating when a singer manages a major technical correction when the career is already underway, and doubly so when the singer in question is the greatest tenor we know. Caruso was from the beginning cast in roles that put plenty of stress on the upper range, not all of which could be finessed through omission or transposition — the Duke, Faust, Enzo in Gioconda and soon Rodolfo in Bohème, Fernando in La Favorita, Canio in Pagliacci. He succeeded with them but frequently cracked on B-flats and, according to Tetrazzini, could have trouble with As and even Gs. By all accounts, everything north of the passaggio was inconsistent in these early years. Yet by 1899, when he began his series of international triumphs in St. Petersburg, these problems had been substantially solved. Voice-building went on, and the intriguing question is how. 

It's hard to tell whether Caruso's first teacher, Guglielmo Vergine (he of the notorious "wind in the shutters" assessment and the sneaky contract), knew anything much about voice. He had the virtue of "letting the voice come naturally," which is useful while a young instrument is still settling, but beyond that will simply leave the singer at status quo. The conductor Vincenzo Lombardi, who undertook to "make longer the voice," so that Caruso could navigate some version of I Puritani at Salerno in 1896, seems to have been of help; Pierre Key (who would have heard of this directly from the singer) mentions breath support, a loose lower jaw, and singing with strength while leaning head-first into the wall. It is also said that the soprano Ada Giachetti, Caruso's common-law wife in those years, was instructive with respect to technique and interpretation, but we have no specifics.

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As Radamès in Aida, a role Caruso sang for the Met ninety-one times
Mishkin/Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives

Caruso himself, while acknowledging this early advice, said the turning point came with the role of Radamès at St. Petersburg, where he had perforce to solidify the crucial tenor "money note," the B-flat. Radamès has a bunch of those, loud and soft, on every vowel except "u," and approached with varying expressive intent. The situation reminds one of Plácido Domingo's quest, while singing in Israel, for greater consistency with the acuti after his baritenor beginnings, or the much more radical breakthrough of Gilbert-Louis Duprez, with his discovery of the full-throated high extension when faced with the role of Arnold in Guglielmo Tell

There isn't a lot to go on, but I think we're safe in concluding that Caruso's improvement had nothing to do with lightening or "lifting" the voice or "bringing it forward" or introducing more upper-register action into the lower range. It's clear from the many comments about the ductility and sweetness of the young voice that Caruso was already singing with a balanced blend and easy emission. Of the three parameters by which the ear can measure vocal function (the balance of coordinations that activate pitch at the point of origin; the respiratory balance that monitors air flow and compression; and the tuning of vocal acoustics that amplifies tone and fashions the harmonic structures we call vowels — all, alas, highly interactive), it appears that the one involving air ("support") was most directly involved here. If you lean into a wall with your head and summon a strong vocal effort, you will do two things: you will enlist the diaphragm and other muscles at the lower end and the laryngeal valve at the upper, to increase thoracic compression, as in pushing or pulling efforts; and you will to some degree counter the tendency of the larynx to rise with pitch. (Key notes Caruso's habit of tilting the head forward when setting for high notes, and Tetrazzini mentions a rounding of tone, along with the increased security.) Whether Caruso left a mark on a St. Petersburg hotel room I cannot say, but I'm pretty sure he found a stronger laryngeal engagement with his respiratory musculature. Radamès became one of his signature roles. 

All this predated Caruso's first recordings (Milan, 1902–03), whereon we can nevertheless hear the singer tinkering, not always successfully, with the occasional singing issue (e.g., whether to sing a passaggio note "open" or more gathered) and with his first encounter with primitive recording conditions. Both he and the recording technicians improved rapidly in their judgment and confidence. By 1906 we feel we are hearing, though still at a distance, a singer in full, consistent command. From this time on, the voice sounds ever meatier and richer, with the sometimes "white" quality of the open "a" gaining depth, and positioning problems vis à vis the acoustical horn (especially in containing, yet conveying, the full force of the high notes) finding better solutions. Only toward the very end is there some loss in sheer suavity and an extra gear on the drive required to surmount climaxes, though he still does so thrillingly: listen to the "Deh, ch'io ritorni" (L'Africana) from the very last session. 

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Francis Robinson Collection/OPERA NEWS Archives

But then, Caruso never sang "safely." He survived two early-twentieth-century operations for vocal-cord nodes or polyps and, after short recovery periods, came right back at it with full animal force. The surest safety is in structural strength and elasticity, and throughout his singing life the same ligamentous webbing that took the brunt of his fiercest fortes could in the next moment spin off the tenderest of intimate inflections.

In exploring the legacy, it's important to listen to good copies — prime-condition originals, judiciously processed by a musical ear alert to the always-troublesome matter of recording speeds and possible transpositions. I like best the complete series on Naxos, in restorations by Ward Marston. Here are notes on a couple of things to listen for that happened to strike me this time through a selection of the recordings:

"Impertinence": try the aforementioned "Questa o quella," or Rossini's "La Danza," or the 1905 brindisi from Cavalleria, with its astonishing wide-open, long-held wraparound lead-in to the Gs on "VI-va" at the launch and return of the main tune, then an interpolated C that can't decide between falsetto and full voice — an almost Koslovskyesque moment. Speaking of the high C and falsetto: by and large, Caruso was a B-natural tenor. Incorporating the C into a voice of this depth and prismatic span is asking a bit much, and Caruso sometimes transposed a half-step, either for the note itself (such as the bone-crushing Bs in "Di quella pira") or for the tessitura. However, there's a superbly balanced C in "Salut, demeure" — almost a voix-mixte, but certainly "connected" — and a fine, full-throated one in "Spirto gentil." He commanded an exemplary half-voice (not the detached fakery or "radio mezza-voce" of many another) that he could carry up through the B-flat when necessary (the Aida tomb scene or the end of "Je crois entendre encore"), but he would occasionally deploy falsetto for delicate effects at the top. Apart from the "Cujus animam" D-flat (not delicate), hear the perfectly graduated final ascent in "Magiche note" (Goldmark's Regina di Saba), sung in an exquisitely controlled mezza-voce and held-in full voice until the penultimate pianissimo B (still a touch of vibrato), then the concluding C ("pure" falsetto, no vibrato).

Other facets of Caruso's singing would well merit discussion, but these will have to do here. As for the eye, you can read the biographies (there are several now), study the many photographs and view the film My Cousin (packaged with a nice A&E documentary), wherein Caruso plays two contrasting roles not noticeably worse than many run-of-the-mill silent-movie actors and displays an effusive emotionality in a staged Pagliacci sequence. 

Or you can go for memorabilia. On a quiet residential street in Brooklyn there's a neat, modest house with a plaque beside the door that reads "Enrico Caruso Museum." Up the stairs are three rooms of collectibles, nearly all Carusiana, and a little screening room. There are photos (one, the very last taken and never published, showing Caruso's true condition a few days before his death), letters, caricatures and paintings and busts, programs, costume items and personal effects. It's an extraordinary collection, the lifelong passion of Cav. Uff. Aldo Mancusi, who takes small groups through it by appointment and on many Sundays conducts programs and lectures. Aldo will share his extensive knowledge with you and perhaps play something on one of the several early cylinder or disc machines in the collection. You will leave with a warm feeling of having touched the life and times of a gargantuan artist and personality, but also with the realization that legacies are fragile: Aldo is getting along now, and the future of his collection is undecided. spacer 

CONRAD L. OSBORNE, a voice teacher, critic and performer, is currently completing a book on the state of opera. 

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