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Caruso: This Clown We Cannot Forget
Caruso as Canio in Pagliacci

At a recent meeting of CAPS, member Barry R. Ashpole talked about Enrico Caruso and the tenor's exciting and colourful career on and off stage, and his recorded legacy. Here is a condensed version of the presentation.

Enrico Caruso and Pagliacci are synonymous. It is Caruso who comes to mind when we think of Canio's big aria in Leoncavallo's opera. And just as the tenor's recording of 'Vesti la giubba' has endured in the minds of even the most casual listener, so Pagliacci itself was the opera Caruso performed more times than any other. He performed the role for the first time in 1896, sang more than 100 performances of Pagliacci with The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, as many again in the major opera houses of the world, as well as frequent galas featuring Act I which ends with Canio's great lament. Some oldtimers, remembering the restrained agonies of Fernando de Lucia, Caruso's great predecessor in Pagliacci, must have been shocked by the new tenor's vehemence which invariably left him visible shaken after each performance.

Caruso's artistic career and private life have been exhaustively treated in many books, innumerable articles and essays, and in four films. One of the greatest opera singers of all time, Caruso was the idol of the opera world for more than two decades. He made what he regarded as his official debut in Naples on November 16th 1894 in L'Amico Fritz. Many more professional engagements followed, and in 1898 he was engaged by the Teatro Lirico in Milan where he created the principal roles in Adriana Lecouvrer and Fedora. In 1901 he became a member of the La Scala Company. Caruso's international fame began in Monte Carlo in 1902 where he was engaged for three additional seasons and received contracts from Covent Garden and The Metropolitan Opera.

Henrich Conreid, the new general manager of the Met, inherited the contract for the 30- year-old tenor. He attempted to have the number of performances in the contract reduced to 10 a season. Fortunately, before changes could be made, Conreid chanced to hear one of the remarkable ten-inch phonograph recordings that Caruso had made in Milan in April 1902. Caruso's debut at the Met took place November 23rd 1903 in Rigoletto, the opening night of the season, maintaining a tradition which, with only one exception, lasted seventeen years in all. He was the shining light of the company and when Caruso sang the box office prospered.

Caruso duplicated his Met triumphs in all the major opera houses of the world, becoming the highest paid singer, and the most adulated.

Caruso on Records

Caruso's voice was admired for its range, tone and shading. It was powerful yet supple, exquisite in upper ranges, sensuous in middle tones and extraordinarily expressive in lower registers. His recordings allow us to hear what many of Caruso's contemporaries considered the greatest tenor of all time. Caruso's voice was uniquely suited to the medium of the phonograph recording. Possibly because of its resonance and smoothness, and a sense of pitch that nothing could shift, his voice lent itself to recording more satisfactorily than most other voices of the time. Working closely with Calvin Child of The Victor Talking Machine Company, Caruso become the first truly important artist in the history of the recording industry. His legacy of 262 recordings provides a complete account of his career, covering every aspect of his vocal art. Caruso's C&T recordings in 1902 were his first; he recorded exclusively with Victor from 1904 onwards. Despite their high price - a typical 12-inch disc, recorded on one side only, cost as much as $7 - sales soared. The tenor's income from Victor totaled more than two million (U.S.) dollars during his lifetime.

Caruso in concert at Massey Hall, Toronto, September 30, 1920

Original recordings were issued by The Gramophone Company, Pathe, Zonophone and Victor. Discographers have identified 496+ recordings, approximately 260 of which were published. The Gramophone Company and Victor, however, assigned catalogue numbers to records which were not released and some collectors have secured special pressings bearing these numbers. Most unpublished recordings were destroyed because they were imperfect. Some were not and these surface from time to time; the source of these are test pressings made by Victor engineers.

In addition to catalogue numbers and stamper indicators, the record companies etched or embossed other symbols in the space next to the label. G&T and HMV records include the matrix number; early Victors include the matrix number, but on later records the company replaced the matrix number with the 'Take' number of the recording. The symbols, 'S/8' or 'S/10' to the left of a Victor label on several recordings refers to transcribed stampers: these are copies of copies. After Caruso's death, Victor electronically amplified or re-recorded a number of the tenor's more popular recordings; these re-recordings, with orchestra accompaniment, bear the symbol 'VE' and are not for the serious collector. They are among the worst transscriptions ever produced.

Piracies of Caruso recordings by Pan-American and Symphony Concert were all transcriptions and of very poor quality. Opera Disc records, however, are different. These piracies are pressings of the highest quality and worth owning. They were made from stampers which were appropriated in Germany during World War I and most of them bear Victor or HMV surface markings.

In the primitive acoustic era, the recording speed varied as much as 10 rpm either way from the nominal 78 rpm. Disregard for this fact can make Caruso sound either like a counter-tenor or a bass.

Caruso in Canada

Caruso made two concert appearances in Canada during 1920: the first was on Sept- ember 27th at the Mount Royal Arena in Montreal, the other on September 30th at Toronto's Massey Hall. For his appearance in Montreal, Caruso was paid $20,544.00. On the program for the Toronto concert, Caruso was scheduled to sing three arias: from La Boheme, "Che gelida manina", from E'lisir d'Amore, "Una furtive lagrima", and from Pagliacci, "Vesti la giubba". We learn from newspaper reports of the day that he gave more then a dozen encores.

Just three months after his Canadian concert appearances - on December 17th - Caruso coughed blood during a performance at the Brooklyn Academy. The diagnosis at the time was intercostal neuralgia. His 607th and last performance at the Met - and his last opera anywhere - took place Christmas Eve when he sang in La Juive while suffering great pain. Pleurisy developed into bronchial pneumonia; an operation removed the fluid from his pleural cavity and it seemed almost certain that Caruso would recover. However, in February 1921, he developed complications. After more treatment, Caruso returned to Italy for a long rest. During the summer he recovered sufficiently to work with his voice, but a relapse proved swiftly fatal. Caruso's death was mourned throughout the world, which paid tribute to him such as few singers before or since have received.