Enrico Caruso: An Estimate of the Sovereign Singer

Tenor Came to America a Great Voice, Departed a Superb Artist—Three Distinct Periods to Be Considered in Appraising His Powers, Attributes, Virtues and Faults—Began as Lyric and Enlarged His Tone in So-Called Raw Beef” Phase—Penalty of Prodigality Exacted in the Peroration of His Long Career, When His High Tones Showed Wear—Development of Exquisite Mezza-Voce a Delight of Final Years—New Powers of Characterization Opened Fresh Vistas in Interpretation—Might Have Been the Greatest Baritone as Well as Greatest Tenor
By Oscar Thompson

IF it is true that no fair evaluation ordinarily can be made of the great of earth until the flight of years has brought to the appraisal the perspective of distance, a salient exception would seem to present itself when attempt is made to estimate the voice and art and career of a giant among singers, such as was taken from a sorrowing world when Enrico Caruso ceased to breathe ten days ago.
A few generations, and a singer is only a name. Those who heard him in the flesh must formulate the opinion of posterity. Not his vision, nor the influence of deeds surviving beyond him, determines his place among the immortals. The reactions of his audiences, of the reviewers, the musical clerisy, the rank and file of those who only know whether they are moved to admiration or left unstirred, decide, in the end, whether his name lives on. If he is neglected or misunderstood or unappreciated for what he is in his years of song, the future is not likely to discover him. He leaves behind him no advocate to plead his cause, such as the manuscript of a greatly gifted but unsuccessful composer. When the voice is still, the one firm basis for judgment is gone. The sooner memories are translated into words, the truer the words should be. When memories, too, are gone, words must suffice—the words of others, second-hand—and vicarious estimates are formed, as best they can be, in the dull and droning biographical way.
Records a Boon to Posterity
FORTUNATELY for posterity, as well as for the memory of Enrico Caruso, he is survived by a multitude of sound-reproducing records which include many impressive illustrations of all that was superb in the purely vocal phases of his art. Because of these, a much truer estimate can be formed of Caruso a century hence, than musical historiographers can shape, to-day, with respect to Rubini or Mario. Future generations can readily understand why the Caruso voice was so universally described as “golden,” and why there was such widespread admiration of his breath control and his skill in phrasing. They can catch more than a little of the fervor and emotional sweep of his singing, and can know even something of his mercurial personality. But, as Caruso was essentially a singer of opera, with all that this implies, they cannot base a complete evaluation on these purely vocal representations alone. The later Caruso, especially, cannot be justly appraised without first hand acknowledgment of his stagecraft, the visual elements which synchronized so convincingly with voice and vocal art in his last and noblest operatic characterization—Eleazar in “La Juive.” Caruso died at a time when his interpretative and delineative powers were at their zenith, and when his artistic taste and skill in dramatic portraiture were being manifested as they had never been manifest before. If, in succeeding paragraphs, there are statements tending to establish retrogression in his vocal powers, these are to be construed as referring to the voice alone, and not to the utilization of it as a .medium of song and of drama.
Three Distinct Periods
CARUSO, the supreme singer, had three—perhaps four—distinct periods, with marked differences in voice and style. America has noted three. A fourth might properly pertain to his early days in Italy, when, as he himself confessed, his voice was so thin and frail that it was likened to a breeze blowing through an open window. His first American period was that subsequent to his début, when he sang as a lyric tenor, with a relatively light voice of a timbre that enchanted the ear. The second, when he greatly enlarged the volume of his tone, deepened it to a baritonal quality, and was prodigal of tremendous top notes, has been called his “raw beef” period. The third and last, beginning about five years ago, found his upper voice somewhat impaired and the quality darkened throughout, but disclosed him a loftier artist and a far more admirable actor than ever 'before. No estimate of Caruso can safely ignore these changes in voice and style, and the Caruso of 1920 must be measured with a different yardstick than either the Caruso of 1903 or the Caruso of 1910.
Reconstructing the Lyric Period
EVEN now, it is only with some difficulty that the essentials of the young Neapolitan who first flashed upon America at the opening of the season of 1903-04, can be recalled and something of his voice and style recaptured. That he did not at once establish himself as the greatest of world tenors is made clear by reference to the newspaper reviews of that début. Three of the leading members of the critical Areopagus to-day were functioning similarly the night of Monday, Nov. 23, 1903, when “Rigoletto” ushered in Mr. Conreid’s first span of opera, as successor to Maurice Grau. What Mr. Krehbiel, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Finck wrote was mostly commendatory and in some measure prophetic, but the brevity and the mildness of what they said reads somewhat curiously to-day.
Mr. Krehbiel devoted most of his re-view to Mme. Sembrich, the Gilda of the cast (which also included Scotti as Rigoletto.) Caruso’s Duke was accorded about seven lines. Mr. Henderson, after dealing with the other principals first, stated that “the new tenor made a thoroughly favorable impression and will probably grow into the favor of this public.” He described the voice as “a pure tenor of fine quality and sufficient range and power. It is a smooth and mellow voice and without the typical Italian bleat.” Of Caruso’s art, he wrote that “Mr. Caruso has a natural and free delivery, and his voice carries well without forcing. He phrased his music tastefully and showed considerable refinement of style.” Mr. Finck, who chronicled the fact that there was no applause when Caruso entered—“no one seemed to know him—gave it as his opinion that “the new tenor, Mr. Caruso, may safely be called the best Duke on the stage.”
Not in Best Voice at Début
IT was pointed out, however, that Caruso was not altogether in his best voice the night of his American début. Two succeeding appearances scheduled for him during his first week at the Metropolitan were canceled, because he developed tonsillitis. In his place, Giuseppe Agostini, not a member of the company, but hastily enrolled as a substitute, sang in “Bohème” and the second “Rigoletto.” The story of how the substitute demanded and received Caruso’s fee was a choice newspaper morsel of the day.
In his Sunday column, Mr. Henderson wrote of Caruso again, saying: “He will become a sound favorite with the local public, which has not heard such an admirable Italian tenor within the memory of the young generation of opera goers. To be sure, he is not a Tamagno, who in certain things was unique. Tamagno was a robust tenor; Mr. Caruso is lyric. But his voice is by no means deficient in power.” He took occasion to point out that Caruso “has the fault of all Italian tenors, the use of the voix blanche.” Mr. Henderson called for thanksgiving, however, that Caruso used the “white voice” sparingly.
Caruso, himself, in an interview a number of years later, referred to criticisms which took him to task for his “white” tone.
“But you never sang with the ‘white voice’!” he was asked.
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “I sang ‘white’ then. The voice, however, was growing rounder, getting more color, more of what you call body; a. stronger voice, which is what the American public likes best.”
Quality of Lyric Voice the Best
IN spite of those moments of whiteness, there are worshipers at the shrine of Caruso who believe that his tone had more of sublimation in those early years at the Metropolitan, than it was ever to possess again. It is their feeling that the development of the “rounder” and the “stronger” organ was at the cost of quality, and that Caruso’s middle period, when the voice which Mr. Henderson first styled “lyric” (and which Grove refers to as a tenore di mezzo carattere) was transformed into a tenore robusto or even a tenore di forza—the classification accorded to Tamberlik and Tamagno—exacted penalties that became evident at the close of his career.
“Aida,” “Bohème,” “Pagliacci,” and “Traviata” were the other operas in which Caruso sang, in the weeks immediately following his American début. The magical quality .of his tone began to assert its sway over all who heard. Of his singing in “Bohème,” Mr. Henderson wrote: “Music of the fluently melodious and sentimental style of ‘La Bohème’ is admirably suited to Mr. Caruso’s voice and method of singing. All the lovely qualities of his uncommonly beautiful voice are brought into prominence, and the few vices into which he falls in the delivery of tragic declamation are retired to the background. He is indeed an enchanting singer of such music as Rodolfo’s.”
Of his first Radames in “Aida,” Mr. Krehbiel said that it stirred “keener appreciation of his knowledge of the art of singing and invited still greater admiration for the superb beauty of his voice. The pleasure which his singing gives is exquisite, scarcely leaving room for captious questions touching his limitations.
After his first Canio in “Pagliacci,” Mr. Finck remarked that “the opinion prevails generally that he is the best Italian tenor New York has heard since Campanini retired from the stage.”
SOME of the extant Caruso records were made during this early period and the marked difference in quality between his voice then and that of the robust middle span, can be noted by any attentive ear. A comparison, for instance, of the “Spirto Gentil” from “Favorita,” or the “Salut Demeure” from “Faust,” with the two records from Leoncavallo’s (not Puccini’s) “Bohème,” will reveal the transition. Those who have the several different Caruso recordings of “Celeste Aida” and “Vesti la Giubba,” including records that have been withdrawn from the catalogs and are now virtually unobtainable, can follow this evolution in successive versions of a single air.
It was in this first period that Caruso’s voice came to be called the golden one. Everything he touched was transformed into glowing metal in the cruset of his song. In some rôles he was out of place, for physical reasons or lack of dramatic skill, but his voice glorified all music alike, good or bad. His Faust was not considered a happy part, yet some of the most exquisite singing of his career was in this rôle. His mezza-voce high C in “Salut Demeure” will never be effaced from the memories of those who heard it. It was the perfect tone. In this first period, which may be said to have included the years 1903 to 1908, the operas in which Caruso appeared were “Rigoletto,” “Bohème,” “Aida,” “Tosca,” “Cavalleria,” “Pagliacci,” “L’Africaine,” “Traviata,” “Lucia,” “L’Elisir d’Amore,” “Carmen,” “Faust,” “Lucrezia Borgia,” “Don Pasquale,” “Sonnambaula,” “Favorita,” “Trovatore” and “Marta.” A number of these were retained in the middle span, but such purely lyric rôles as those in “Rigoletto,” “Lucia” and “Don Pasquale were dropped. Only Canio in “Pagliacci” continued with him to the end, Radames joining the discard three seasons ago, and Cavaradossi the following year. No one will doubt that to the last he could have sung many of his earlier parts well, but his forte in his final years was for other operas and other rôles. A remarkable instance of his ability to return to a discarded part was presented by his relatively recent successes as Nemorino in “L’Elisir d’Amore,” in which he contrived to lighten his entire production, and in which his flair for spontaneous comedy asserted itself in a characterization as individual as it was humorous.
The “Raw Beef” Period
CARUSO’S middle period found the voice heavier and increasingly baritonal in quality. The high tones were much altered. Instead of the inflected and frequently “covered,” but none the less vital and ringing upper notes of his earlier years, he propelled long sustained blasts of stentorian resonance. In Tamberlik’s time it was said of such tones that they “put out the gas.” The quality sometimes suffered from sheer muscular propulsion, and an instrumental sonority quite generally replaced the fine nerve-fire that burned along the edges and gave an essentially human glow to the lighter earlier voice. The great tenor doubled his popularity by his displays of vocal torosity and he became prodigal of volume and upper tones beyond any other singer of the day. Canio and Radames were his warhorses. His répertoire changed to include “Butterfly,” “Fedora,” “Adrienne Lecouvreur,” “Manon Lescaut,” “Germania,” “Armide,” “Fanciulla del West,” “Huguenots,” “Ballo in Maschera” and “Julien,” some of which he sang better than they deserved. At the height of his physical and vocal powers, his faults also presented themselves in a more exaggerated form than in his early years. From the first he was inclined toward the lachrymose. Now, “the Caruso sob” all too frequently marred the melodic line. There was much panting and gasping in emotional scenes, and in such parts as des Grieux in Massenet’s “Manon” there was a suggestion of the bull in a china shop. But his virtues towered over his gaucheries. Though the judicious grieved, more than ever he was the supreme tenor of the world.
Caruso’s Third Manner
HIS last period may be said to have begun with the performance of “Samson et Dalila” which opened the season of 1915-16, though it was only in the last two seasons before his death that the change to a new manner was fully recognized. Caruso’s Samson in 1920 was a far nobler characterization than his Samson of 1915. In five years his powers as an actor had developed marvelously. His characterization of Eleazar in “La Juive,” the last new rôle in which he was destined to appear, was one worthy of place with the opera portraits of Maurel, Renaud and Scotti, exceptional as it is to admit a tenor into that select company of great singing-actors who almost invariably have been baritones or basses. “Samson,” the new “Carmen” (with Farrar), “Pêcheurs de Perles,” the revived “L’Elisir d’Amore,” “Lodoletta,” “Prophète,” “Marta” (as revived), “Forza del Destino,” and “La Juive” figured prominently in his répertoire. “L’Amore dei Tre Re” he found unsuited to him and quickly discarded it. “Marta” and “L’Elisir” restored something of his early lyricism. In “Lodoletta” and “The Pearl Fishers,” neither of which was destined to live, he sang with ravishing tone and a new beauty of style. There was much that was altogether admirable in his singing in “Forza del Destino,” and parts of “Prophète” he made as notable as “Samson” and “Juive.”
Voice Showed Signs of Wear
THE voice in these last years showed wear. Upper tones were not infrequently jagged, and had lost something of their vitality. The middle and lower registers (if the term can be applied to so superb a scale as Caruso’s) were dark and baritonal when power was applied, though still sumptuously beautiful. Increased taste and skill in vocal nuance accompanied the expansion of the great tenor’s powers as an actor, and Caruso came to rely for his most appealing effects on his heavenly mezza voce, which he now developed and utilized, after having in large measure neglected it during the robust middle period. His style frequently suggested his earlier years in its lyric grace, but there was now greater artistry and far more intellect in the August 13, 1921 singing. Only in the mezza voce was it as entrancing in sheer sound, but his art had gained in restraint and taste what his tone had lost in sensuous appeal. The high notes were neither the narrow and finely inflected tones of his early career, nor the broad, pealing and dominating trumpet blasts of his middle years. He sang most satisfyingly, in an artistic sense, when not compelled to soar above the ordinary high baritone range. There was no baritone who, note for note, could compare with him within this range.
Caruso lived and died the world’s greatest tenor; he could also have been its greatest baritone. Perhaps, if he had lived longer, a way might have been found—without weakening his prestige—for him to have sung some baritone rôles; just as, in concert, he frequently sang (and sang gloriously) songs that were in medium or baritone keys. New tenor rôles open to him were not numerous. His powers of characterization called for additional parts such as Eleazar. (What a Falstaff he might have made, with his spontaneous and genuine humor, if he could have been persuaded to essay the part!) His future seemed to lie in the direction or character parts, either tragic or humorous, and away from the old order of romantic young lovers, wherein he was often unconvincing and maladroit. He came a great voice, he departed a great artist. It is as both voice and artist that Caruso must be given his place as a singer unsurpassed in the annals of song. The voice altered and the art grew. No good can come now of raising the question of what might have been if Caruso had not been so prodigal of his upper tones in his robust years, or if he had mastered some later details of his art when he was a younger man. What was is more than sufficient to give him his well-won place among the immortals.


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