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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Enrico Caruso: The Greatest Tenor or The First Media Triumph?

I bought my first Caruso record when I was about 17 years old, lo these many years ago. I still remember it: Celeste Aida. It was a very large double-sided 78. I pretty much played the grooves off it. In the intervening time, I have, to the best of my knowledge, heard every available Caruso recording, and there are hundreds. Additionally, I personally knew two people who heard him at his zenith, around 1918. After all that, and uncountable discussions on the subject, I cannot answer the question I pose in this piece. I can raise it; possibly even suggest an answer, but I cannot answer it. As in the case of Chaliapin, those who are called great in the world of operatic singing usually escape analysis, by virtue of the title “great,” bestowed upon them by generations of opera lovers. Caruso is commonly known as the “Great Caruso.” And for most people, that is enough said. Disagreement is neither encouraged nor appreciated. He became a generic brand name for “Opera Singer,” so that easy and common praise for an aspiring young male singer became “a little Caruso,” “another Caruso,” “the new Caruso,” and so on. Additionally, Vesti la Giubba became his calling card, associated with him by almost everyone in America at the time. Ordinary individuals, with little sophistication or knowledge of classical music at all, nevertheless came to know the name of Caruso, and imagined him portraying the tragic clown. It was a name they could drop with confidence, if the occasion arose, being assured of no more challenging a response than an acquiescent nod of agreement. Here is the Caruso calling card:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_M6DcqRjfCI


Certainly a great dramatic voice; heavy, intense and driven. A voice for the theater. He had conviction, and that equals style, and the style is verismo, writ large. From the very beginning days of his general fame, to challenge this in any way was heresy, and this has to do with the audience. Here is a magnificent video that, for me, tells the story of Caruso very directly. I urge you to listen to it all the way through; it is only 5 minutes. It is largely commentary on Caruso, the most interesting being the comments of the elderly gentlemen in Luigi Rossi’s Grocery store, explaining Caruso’s success in their own words and from their own point of view, which I will not characterize:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeqMyVInD2E


Whatever else one may say about this, it does catch the mood of what verismo meant to these men in Luigi’s Grocery store, and how it put paid to the whole style that preceded it, (bel canto). It is interesting that they mention Bonci and Di Lucia. This is the popular audience I have spoken of on other occasions. The earlier singing did not appeal to them so much as the new verismo did. For these men, Caruso was a hero, the Italian boy made good, one of them, man of the people, who gave highly dramatic and easily understandable presentations on the stage, and so on. The enthusiasm spread to a large American audience coming to opera perhaps for the first time, and the imprint—via New York—of the Caruso phenomenon was a lasting one, and it was characterized by the kind of immigrant enthusiasm evidenced in the video. In a way, this is a shame, because it contributed in part to the stereotyping of the Italian operatic tenor in America that survives to this day (and was exploited rather calculatingly by Luciano Pavarotti.) We all know the stereotype: extrovert, (or sextrovert), a fat man with huge appetites, eccentric, with an extremely high voice that is so powerful it shatters glass—etc. ad nauseam. One must be fair. This silly image is not an Italian creation; this is an American reaction to something that had not previously been part of the American experience, and was not well understood by many. Further, it was a reaction made at the most superficial level possible. For Italians, these singers were just part of their theater and their music. Caruso did not ask for this, nor did he consciously cultivate it or deserve it. He was in fact a simple, decent, very hard working man with a great commercial voice who earned his reputation on the stage, giving a truly huge number of performances in his life (hundreds at the Met alone.) He was exhausted by 1920, when he was only 47 years old, and had made plans with his wife Dorothy to retire. The problem for Caruso was that he rose to fame at a time when there was something like a planetary conjunction of technological and societal forces. He almost single-handedly established the fortunes of the RCA Victor Red Seal division. People in Kansas who knew nothing about opera knew his name and very probably had a record of his, along with one of John McCormack and Amelita Galli-Curci. He appeared in a film (his acting wasn’t all that bad, actually); he came along as verismo was becoming a serious aesthetic school of opera performance, and, perhaps most importantly, he came along not only at the time of the big Italian immigration to America, but also the rise of an upper middle class in America, which wanted to participate in the classical arts, and was willing to embrace opera as an exotic plant imported into America from Italy. So powerful and long lasting was this influence that New York opera is only recently beginning to disengage itself from it.

My opinion? Given my personal attraction to refinement and elegance in the fine arts, my love of bel canto opera and classical ballet, it has never been easy to be very enthusiastic about Caruso’s musicianship or performance style. Yes, I know….a long time ago, bad recordings, and so on. But they aren’t that bad. Caruso had almost no education, musical or otherwise. His vocal refinements were close to non-existent, and, as a result, his singing is monochromatic. His single mode is forte singing, in spite of several Italian songs such as Vaghissima Sembianza, which he sang mezza voce. One of the people I knew, who had heard Caruso about the time of the First World War, commented simply on the power of the voice. This was a common reaction, often found in reviews of the time. Now, on the positive side, it cannot be denied that he possessed a great voice; largely untutored, but great. He was essentially a Bb tenor, who could occasionally come up with a very powerful B. Whether he ever attempted a high C cannot be demonstrated because, sadly, many of the recordings were doctored to make the voice seem higher, “Studenti udite’ from Giordano’s Germania being one of the most notorious examples, recently corrected, thank God. Another was Di Quella Pira, which, once adjusted downward until the characteristic sound of his voice is in evidence, proves to be possibly a B, and probably a Bb, which would be a full tone and a half down. There are those who question whether Caruso was in fact a real tenor, or a high baritone. I think the truth is that he was simply the progenitor of the dramatic tenor; essentially a Bb tenor with an enormously powerful voice and a very convincing melodramatic style of singing, quite popular at the time.

Mainly, he was the Great Caruso.

39 comments:

corax said...

sir edmund has done it again. nobody could strike to the heart of the matter more eloquently or effectively.

JD Hobbes said...

As you suggest, he came at the right time and the right place to couple his ability and personality with the new era of communication. Phonograph records spread his fame, and the ability to tour broadly with ships and automobiles helped him meet people in many locations. I think of him as the Babe Ruth of opera...the first of a kind.

Edmund said...

You are most kind, my friend. Thank you. Very few people that I know have your aesthetic refinement or musical taste, and I know from sad experience that these suggestions I have made seldom fall on sympathetic ears. The reactions to any kind of Caruso criticism tend to be deep and almost "class-driven." You may well have seen the Mario Lanza movie "The Great Caruso." There is a scene in it which picks up on a completely untrue rumor, and it is the one in which Caruso makes his Met debut, and no one in the audience applauds at all until one man, in one of the box seats, stands and applauds on his own: he is Jean de Reske. And suddenly the people, seeing that the great de Reske is applauding, are convinced and begin to applaud Caruso. This bit of rubbish derives from a single sentence, as I recall, from a book called "Caruso, His Life in Pictures," which the Met used to give awauy as a gift to people who subscribed to "Opera News." The sentence was simply to the effect that people did not appreciate Caruso at first, and "pined for the vocal refinements of Jean de Reske." Rot. There was nothing to it, but it reflects very well the kind of sentiments that divided the fans of verismo and the more traditional opera fans who prefered the earlier bel canto operatic traditions, with their vocal refinements.

I think the battle is largely over, with a final victory to the traditionalists, but it has been going on for a very long time.

Edmund said...

The above reply is to Corax.

To J.D. Hobbes:

You are right.The new era of communication was exactly timed to coincide with Caruso's American career. He benefitted greatly from it. Your Babe Ruth analogy is curiously exact--enormous popularity, complete with stories of excessive behavior and tastes. What was the hot dog episode? Time has eroded the memory, but Babe Ruth was reported to have eaten a huge number of them at one sitting. And then of course the home run is not a bad analogy for the very high note at the end of the aria:) That kind of thing. I remember the day Babe Ruth died. I was traveling with my family out west, and saw the newspaper headline in a roadside cafe: "Babe Ruth dies of Cancer." 1948, if memory serves.

JD Hobbes said...

Both men came from humble beginnings, both rose to celebrity, both were known for their charity, and both were larger than life characters in both their weaknesses and strengths. Caruso's fame is shown in the remarkable fact that he lay in state for a full year. Ruth had come along a bit later and was celebrated in movies. Only a little footage of Caruso was made, and one wonders how he would be viewed today if he had been cast in movies. Let's hope he would have been a better screen figure than Lawrence Tibbett, who resembed a somewhat impish and silly character.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article, as usual, Sir Edmund.
There was a quarrel on our main operatic forum, when someone (not me) wrote, “it’s hard to sing ‘La donna e mobile’ better than Lemeshev”. Another user replied something like , “How dare you! Caruso is always the best Duke! He is the best of all tenors!” There was a couple of other people who thought the same. It’s not that they were huge fans of Caruso’s, just thought that the ranking was like that : The #1tenor Caruso, a huge gap, and then all others. I listened to Caruso and didn’t feel specific pleasure, that one can expect from the singing of the greatest tenor of the world. To my taste, he had a great voice of beautiful timbre; he was very genuine in his emotions, but some of his performances were too melodramatic. Besides, there were other tenors with beautiful voices. It seems to me that every type of voice can be represented by no less than 5-10 “number one” singers. Each of them is unique. I agree that Caruso’s #1 position among tenors is a result of promotion.
Chaliapin , who heard him in Milan, wrote very favorable comments on Caruso( “…wonderfully sang Caruso, then a young man, full of strength, jovial and a very good friend”) He listed him with other two singers with beautiful voices: Angelo Masini and Gayarre. On the other hand, he called Masini “a divine singer” and Tamagno “a voice of a century” and he didn’t rank Caruso as the #1. (Both Masini and Tamagno sang in Russia ).
N.A.

Edmund said...

Caruso certainly did not have the looks of a matinee idol:) "The Cousin" is largely comedic, or certainly light hearted. He was not, let us say, a tragedian like Chaliapin: his acting was pretty standard for the time, which is not saying much, of course. There is a video on Youtube of the sextet from Lucia that is a Vitaphone merge of sound and picture. It dates, if I remember correctly, from 1911. Caruso is in it, and one gets the idea pretty quickly. The poses are near-balletic. They certainly wouldn't work today. Ruth's weaknesses were pretty much the standard ones--women and drink. I think he would have had a hard time competing today. It is important to remember that unlike movie stars, whose lives are usually notorious, the extreme discipline required of (great) opera singers, ballet dancers, and today's sports heros really militates against self destructive behavior. Caruso was actually very restrained in his personal habits. I do not know of any affairs, for example. None ever hit the press, in any case. There is at least one report of him scrambling the lyrics of Lucia when he was young, owing to a bit of over-indulgence in wine. But such reports on his personal life are very rare. Mainly he worked--constantly, it seems.

Edmund said...

The above reply is to J.D. Hobbes.

Reply to Anonymous N.A.

Thank you very much, N.A., for the insight from Russia. You are, as usual, exactly right. And I like the idea of 5-10 people able to claim the number 1 title in pretty much any artistic category. Chaliapin's reaction is most interesting. He recognizes, again, the great power of Caruso's voice and presentation, and the energy. One hears that a lot. One does not, however, hear words or phrases like "elegant," "beautiful phrasing," etc. It was always the power of the voice, the dramatic vocal presentation. And of course you did not have the Italian immigration into Russia, and the energetic support of an immigrant community. Those factors were important in America at that time. And the reaction on the Russian opera forum, "He is the best of all tenors" is something we are used to here also. To say such things is dogmatic, and to question them is heresy. All a bit silly, of course, and usually the refuge of those of limited musical sensibilities or experience.

Edmund said...

Note to my readers: I apologize for the fact that my responses sometimes do not appear under the comment they are written in response to. I have just disovered the problem. Comments come in with a date and time stamp on them, and no matter which ones I approve first for publication, they appear chronologically according to their time stamp. I will be careful henceforth to answer them in chronological order by time stamp, and that should solve the problem. Thanks, Edmund

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that in those years ( the 1900-30’s) tenors with powerful voices were not so rare: Tamagno, Caruso, Lauri-Volpi. What do you think?

n.a.

Edmund said...

This is an extraordinarily interesting and difficult question, and I frankly don't know quite how to approach it. You are right that there were some very large voices in the past, and certainly the three tenors you name had huge voices. HOwever, we need to remember that as we approach the era of bel canto, some of the voices were fairly small but they were very well focused, because people then sang "on the breath." This is one of the tenets of bel canto, and it makes a huge difference. Amelita Galli-Curci had a very good career, and she had a tiny little voice. I think your question boils down essential to singing techniques. There have been some huge voices today: Corelli, Giacomini, Vinay, Sutherland, others. Sometimes it is sheer size of voice, other times it is kind of voice, or the singing technique. Everyone goes on about how the Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchoir could be heard over big Wagnerian orchestras, but that was because his voice was finely focused. Those sounds carry. Giacomini, everyone said, had a huge voice, but on some nights he was hard to hear, because he sang OVER the breath, not ON the breath (i.e., hs swallowed a lot of sound:)

Several things come to mind. Remember that the old singers had to cut the records they made with the power of their own voice. It was the vibration of air making a little diaphragm vibrate a needle, which cut grooves onto a wax cylinder. The more powerful the voice, the better it recorded; so, many singers of the Caruso era may have blasted away when they made recordings so they could be heard better on the records. Also, people were rather more fond of outdoor arenas in the past than in the present (perhaps this had to do with air conditioning, or the lack of it.) If you remember the post on Lauri Volpi, we had a video of him singing in the Arena of Verona, and it was absolutely huge. Caruso once sang Carmen in an outdoor arena in South America. And Verdi's great parade of animals, including elephants, in the triumphal march from Aida, suggest an outdoor setting. Theaters today are a little more singer-friendly than they were, and air conditioning has made indoor performances more comfortable, and recording techniques are so advanced, a person hardly need make any sound at all: there are engineers pushing buttons and turning knobs, doing pretty much what they want to with the voices. So yes, I think you are probably right, at least to a degree, as far as the older singers are concerned, for some of the reasons mentioned.

Jing said...

A most fascinating discussion, and I believe your overall assessment, Edmund, is right on the money. (And, of course, the nexus of culture, communication and technology, timing - is endlessly fascinating. I once heard someone make the case that Lope de Vega was arguably as great a writer as Shakespeare, were it not for...etc.) But back to Caruso. My first recording was a single-sided one of "O Sole Mio." It belonged to my grandmother (along with some cylinders we couldn't play on anything). I really loved it, and recalling this makes me wonder about Caruso's recordings of songs, especially the Neapolitan, and possibly his use of them in concerts. While some are very morose, of course, others are quite delicate and charming, and others filled with life and gusto. I think he recorded lots of them and they must have sold well, both in Italy and the U.S. On one of my Caruso collections, he sings "La danza" (Rossini). It's truly dazzling. Not just for the pyrotechnics, but the fun and agile grace he brings to it - even playing with tone and texture - while at a breakneck pace. Any thoughts, Edmund, on Caruso and popular Italian song of the day?

Edmund said...

Impressive comment, and great question! I think, without much doubt, that Caruso's recordings of popular Italian music of the day were simply marvelous. And, not to play down his operatic achievements, it may even be that it was the truest fach for that particular voice. Had it not been for the near total triumph of Italian verismo at that time, it is not so certain that Caruso would have been such a favorite in the opera house. The result of verismo being the style of the day was that for him, the distance between a song such as O sole mio and the more popular arias of the day was not so great. I remember how Mario Lanza managed the same cross-over, even in two languages, again largely aided by the media, in his case TV and movies. The acoustic records, in Caruso's case, were no impediment at all, because he had power a-plenty to cut them just with his voice alone. McCormack also worked well with acoustic recordings--they lent a shimmer to his voice that it did not actually possess. One thing impresses itself upon me in this case--neither Caruso nor McCormack sounded as good on later recordings. McCormack's voice was actually a little lifeless on electrical recordings. I believe that today both those voices would be less appealing on recordings. The voices that shine on modern recordings are the lighter ones with more ring. I heard Feruccio Tagliavini both on record and in person, as I did Roberta Peters. Both had small voices that recorded beautifully. In person they tended to disappoint. So for the Great Caruso it all came together at the conjunction of the right time, right place and right technology. Also, I think Lope de Vega would not fare too well in a "play"-off contest with Shakespeare. Lope wrote much too much....some of those plots get paper-thin after the 50th play......:) :)

JD Hobbes said...

Ha ha. You mention the triumphal march from Aida. When the march occurs indoors in a city that has its own popular zoo (e.g. Music Hall, Cincinnati), the animals get more applause and excitement than the players.

It is always quite spectacular.

Edmund said...

:) :) Ha, ha. Yes, indeed. That can happen!

Anonymous said...

There is a quote in the Wikipedia article on Lemeshev,"He sang sul soffio (leaning on the breath), avoided stressful abdominal respiration (only Caruso could do it), and directed the sound current to the mask, the method of singing which was so much Lauri-Volpi's gospel." (Dr. Joseph Fragala)
When I read it for the first time, I thought “Wow!” :) But later I learnt, that singing “on the breath” was the main thing in operatic technique. Is there a difference between singing “on the breath” and “sul soffio”, or maybe the author wrote something strange?
n.a.

Edmund said...

No, that is correct. "Sul soffio," in Italian, simply means "on the breath." It is the same thing. And you are right; this is the main thing in operatic singing. It was especially a tenet of bel canto. It is absolutely crucial to sound production, phrasing, legato, pianissimo, and even pronunciation. It's the whole secret to singing. Do you have children's toys in Russia which are paddles with rubber balls attached to them by a long elastic rubber band? Teachers sometimes use those to demonstrate. You hit the ball with paddle, and it soars out for a little distance, and then comes zinging back to the paddle. Or throwing a rubber ball against a wall, and watching it come back to you. These are visual techniques to represent singing by starting with a little sound, then expelling air and letting the sound rise and then bringing it back down again as the breath fades away. like this < > out, back; out, back, out, back. Etc (If I could draw as well as you can, I'd draw you a picture, but alas, I cannot! No talent at all. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the detailed answer. Operatic technique seems like yoga to me.
From the quote I understood that Caruso (and Lemeshev:)) had been able to do something that other singers couldn’t (to sing “sul soffio” or to “avoid stressful abdominal respiration” ?) and it seemed strange to me, because everyone says that there is only one correct method of singing and all the great singers used it.
n.a.

Edmund said...

The problem, I think, is the idea that there is only one correct way to sing. Probably true, but there are teachers who will dispute that. Certain ways of singing, used by "heroic" singers, are employed to make very dark sounds while at the same time singing the usual high notes. This is not easy. A good example would be Giuseppe Giacomini. He holds the larynx down very low in the throat, which makes it possible to singer higher (he is probably really a baritone with a high top). The only problem with this is that you don't sing on the breath, but are letting a lot of breath go out over the top of the resonating cords. I know this is technical, but the result is that the sound seems very loud to those standing close by, and very loud to the singer himself (or herself) but it does not carry as well as it should. It also is monochromatic; i.e., there is only one sound level--very loud. It makes it impossible to sing both loud and soft, with the result that there is no contract to the sound. Lemeshev was perfect. The way he did it is the way to do it.

Xander Harvey said...

Thanks for an interesting article. Caruso was also a client of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and nephew of Freud, which could be seen as a key factor in explaining his mass appeal. The documentary 'The Century of the Self' is a fascinating look at Bernays' influence.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment, and the information on Edward Bernays. I didn't realize that, but am fascinated to learn it. Edmund

Tom Froekjaer said...

That is a GREAT, very real comment/abstract on Caruso. I would classify myself as an operatic ignoramus, yet, I made an absolutely non-profit website as a tribute to Caruso. Solely because he moved me emotionally.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed. That is a lovely comment, and I apprecite it. I congratulate you on having done a website dedicated to the great tenor, who has moved generations of listeners. Certainly one of the greatest singers of all time.

ahmer nadeem anwer said...

Thank you Sir Edmund for explaining so vividly and illuminatingly the mechanics of the relationship between breath control and vocal dynamics. I couldn't agree with you more when you mention Lemeshev as the tenor in whom this technique is illustrated with perfect effectiveness. I discovered Lemeshev purely accidentally. There is an old recording of Paul Robeson in a concert singing the Russian song 'Nochenka' in which he is joined midway by a tenor who surprisingly eclipses Robeson comprehensively. The impression of that ancient vinyl stayed with me down the years, and I recently thought of searching on YouTube for a Russian tenor doing Nochenka. Lo and behold, I suddenly came upon a stunning rendition by a tenor whose name I'd never heard, a performance of exquisite beauty of phrasing, as well as breathtaking vocal focus and tone management - not to mention a deeply poignant and utterly untheatrical, non-'hammy' emotional sincerity and lyricism that went straight to your heart. The singer was Sergei Lemeshev. I explored piece after piece. It wasn't a fluke. Recordings like the Pearl Fishers aria put other outstanding versions decisively in the shade. It was a sort of rude awakening, because in one's lifelong honouring of Caruso's power and greatness, some questions, a few lingering discomforts and dissatisfactions - albeit half articulated - had persisted alongside the grand admiration. In this background, it seems to me questions you raise apropos Caruso's limitations, although 'blasphemous', are wholly fair, and I feel the poser as regards the combined role of media, a burgeoning popular culture industry, the right technological 'moment' et al in the attainment of 'iconicity' by the 'great' Caruso is piercingly insightful as regards how reputations and images can assume unassailable dimensions in the era of media promotion. I think there are things Caruso did that are difficult to surpass or even equal. The tone is ample, burnished, dramatically pushed to thrilling climaxes, sustained with tremendous force and breath support, and often there is a kind of raw, elemental passion in the performance, that straddles a Tosca aria or a Neapolitan ballad with equal emotional directness. There is also sometimes that "monochramatic" crudity of tone, a certain lack of musicality and phrasal refinement, and none of the sensitivity, depth or artistic refinement - or sheer melodiousness with the musical line - that one hears in Lemeshev, and certainly very little of the latter's artistic and imaginative musical invention or the golden focusing of the tone with smoothness throughout the register. Lemeshev is a revelation, at least to me. He seems to combine lyricism, musicianship, a Gigli like delicasy of tone and bel canto beauty of voice without the latter's lachrymose sentimentalism, with - surprisingly for such a delicate voice - a Bjorling like breadth of sound and spread. But above all, the unique ability to 'release'/'unleashe' and 'retract' the voice 'on the breath' in the way you explain, helps in staying with the orchestra and the musical line, as one of the 'instruments' that faithfully and committedly - heroically yet self-submittingly - fulfill the composer's intentions. Perhaps the training of the voice with popular Russian instruments like the Balalaika and accordion's bellows, with their expanding-contracting amplitutde dynamics, has something to do with this? And that last point reminds me: Italian tenors are often superb interpreters of Neapolitan ballads and songs; but Lemeshev is AT LEAST as rooted in Russian popular song, a singer truly of the earth as well as of sophisticated art song...AND his reading of some of the Italian songs he recorded is sensational! What a loss to the world that, thanks to the information lag of the Cold War era, he was so long not even accounted in the narratives of serious singing of European music that came out of the West!!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for a stunningly erudite and thoughtful comment! And I could not agree more with you about Lemeshev. If you have not already done so, and I suspect you have, do not neglect to click onto the Youtube channel of my Russian friend who signs herself younglemeshevist. She is extremely knowledgeable about Lemeshev and all things relating to his career. She deserves a lot of the credit for speading the word about this magnificent tenor, because she was among the first to begin to spread his recordings in the West, along with those of Antonina Nezhdanova, another superb singer, and still considered by many Russians to be their greatest soprano. Please check my own channel, whose address you can find in the right hand bar at the top of this article, under "see all my videos." In the "favorites" section I mention a fair number of Lemeshev pieces, and in my own postings, I have put up four Nezhdanova recordings.

And thank you again for a spectacular comment!

ahmer nadeem anwer said...

Many thanks, Sir Edmund, for being so generous on that comment, which before everything else, came from the heart - I'm so glad you agree, since endorsement from you for one's intuition carries so much meaning. The pointers you give should be of great assistance to me (and others interested) to explore this subject and singer further; those who have spread the good word - and the great sound - are owed a debt of gratitude by music lovers.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, and please feel free to drop by the blog anytime you wish. You are always most welcome.

tom said...

It is interesting what you said about Tagliavini and Peters, that they were more impressive on records. The exact oppostite thing happened to me when I heard Sharon Isbin at J&R records in Manhattan. Wqxr had arranged to broadcast a live performance, at lunchtime and only two or three people were there. But The roundeness of tone she showed on the guitar, and the exquisite legato were unforgettable, and comprised a singing lesson in themselves.I asked Jeff Spurgeon about this and he said the recordings tend to flatten out the tones.
Incidentally, I learned how to sing sul fiato last spring, by merely THINKING of GArcia's "inhalare la voce". Not only did it take all the strain off my jaw, it kept my eye sockets form hurting by the end of the aria.(I also corrected my posture,and now , a year later, I have begun to "sing from my knees", which are eve so slightly bent, as though ready to dive off a board. I always thought such
directives the height of absurdity, and gimmicks, but after it was expalained to me conceptually and with a view to discovering ones true or "native" vocal tone, I had the impulse to try it. The truth of it became apparent because soon after I absorbed it I was able to trill without any real effort, to any desired level of staccato, on all tones. TOM

Edmund St. Austell said...

How very interesting! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us, and I wish you the best of luck! Trill on, my friend:)

Anonymous said...

Discussing great tenors you must exclude Caruso.This is because he was in a class of his own.His vocal range,power and beauty have been unsurpassed to this day.

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

Edmund, it is the hope of mine that one day far in the future people will see this article and think: "Who was this man wise and potent."

This is the most difficult of subjects, and you address it poise, respect, dignity and verity. True work like this difficult to find.

Other readers, Edmund and I have talked about Errico Caruso much recently in private messages. In these letters, nothing I could ever say equals Edmund's final statement here in this article: «Mostly, he was the great Caruso».

La saluto amico caro e intelligente. Di tutta la gente mi avrò conosciuto nei tutti miei anni, Ella si fu il miglior: per potere, per verità, per l'occhio giusto. Caruso cantò per Ella, come gli altri grandi cantanti della lirica.

Grazie, grazie!

Edmund StAustell said...

You are too kind, my friend! La maggior parte delle mie opinioni sono formate da conversazioni con persone che sono più informati di me. Se ho una qualche credibilità come critico, è semplicemente un talento per la sintesi. Ma in ogni caso, vi ringrazio molto!

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. St. Austell, I have just discovered your blog and I have been reading and listening to stunning music gradually. However, I would like to write my question connected with Caruso here.
Are you planning to write about the Czech famous opera soprano from the beginning of last century, Emma Destinova? She has a tragic destiny (nomen omen) and was more known abroad, especially in Met, then in her country. She sang with Caruso a few years in Met. I would like to read your opinion about her voice and about her fate. Thank you.
I am registered here as opera7, but I do not know how to work with the Google account...

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment! Welcome to Great Opera Singers. I will certainly look into Madame Destinova a little further. It is entirey possible that we may be able to do an article on her. Again, thank you for writing.

Mark Giugovaz said...

When I was a teenager we went for a long holiday in Italy. This was about 75, 76. I'll never forget going to Naples! That was de Lucia country. I remember going to a record shop, Questa o quella by de Lucia playing loudly. From my home in Toronto, Naples seemed like Caruso country. I remember asking the vendor about Caruso in my bad Italian. He replied in bad English: "Caruso no like when the people say he sing bad here, so he say he only come a in a Naples to eat, and that is a the only thing we want him in here for!" Moving up the social scale, my dad had become rich enough to be invited to this private club for dinner. The club was made up of aristocrats and other wealthy people, mayors, accountants, lawyers, politicians. Those men loved their opera as much as their Ferraris, and once again, de Lucia was the tenor for them, not Caruso. When I mentioned him, one man started talking about how the real Caruso (meaning Richard Tucker) had just died and it was such a tragedy. Then he kept emphasizing, over and over, "de Lucia was a Neapolitan, de Lucia was a Neapolitan!" as if to imply that Caruso wasn't.

Your assessment that Caruso was a social phenomenon is really true. I remember as young kid, dad used to play Caruso's records, the uncles and cousins would sit down, play cards, have a drink. It was more background music and not really opera. As we got richer, an interest in opera, trips to the Met, seeing the Met on tour, started to blossom and those Caruso records started to get dusty. Dad wasn't so much a fan of de Lucia, but he loved Bonci, and later Pertile! I guess not all Italian Canadian/Americans made that transition though... Anyway great article, you're brave tackling Caruso! Really enjoying Great Opera Singers. Sorry the ramble and Thanks Mark.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mark. GREAT comment! And yes, you have discovered, as I have, that Caruso was essentially an American phenomenon. All one has to do is talk to Italians a while, especially Neapolitans, and one quickly discovers that de Lucia was THE tenor for them, and still is. Caruso was booed in Naples once--which you refer to--and he never forgave them. Caruso had become used to the hyper-enthusiastic star treatment he always got at the Met, and was not one to tolerate criticism. But to give the credit where it is due, de Lucia was simply a wonderful bel canto tenor who is probably even more popular today than he was then. Toscanini used to be fond of making fun of de Lucia, because of his musical liberties. And that is another subject--Toscanini has many detractors too, and de Lucia lovers have never forgiven Toscanini for that grievous slip in judgment! Thanks for the comment!

The Balch said...

Hi Mr. St. Austell!

Thanks for the article; it's a stimulating read, as always.

To be honest, Caruso scares the pants off of me. I avoided listening to him extensively for the longest time, but because of the historical significance of his recordings, and his cultural influence, I felt it was finally time to take the plunge. I can't say it's been easy, Lord knows!

I only have a couple of queries this time.

First of all, I was curious about the question of vocal refinements. It's clear to me from my limited exposure to Caruso that he tended towards declamatory, powerhouse vocalism, but actually, some of his early recordings surprised me. This one is a good example:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mboEwGayWSc

I definitely wasn't expecting the tenderness with which he begins the aria. He doesn't maintain that dynamic throughout the piece of course, and in other recordings where he shades lighter it can sound pinched or dry to me, but it's far from the kind of bellowing I was expecting. How do you and your other readers feel about this?

Second, I have a theory (for whatever it's worth) on the phenomenon of the "Bb tenor." Maybe I'm naïve, but I only recently discovered (and it was a real shock,) that an incredible number of singers in the early, and maybe even mid, 20th century were smokers, and not casual ones. I read that Caruso puffed clove cigarettes at a rate that makes chain smoking seem like recreational use. Even Tito Schipa, who was notoriously paranoid about protecting his voice, smoked. Check out this flyer:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&safe=off&site=imghp&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1362&bih=573&q=tito+schipa+cigarette&oq=tito+schipa+cigarette&gs_l=img.3...18126.22513.1.22629.21.11.0.10.10.0.90.756.11.11.0...0.0...1ac.1.2.img.Zj6b0aqPgZU#imgrc=mKAJiskggw3aBM%3A%3BNAI6_dp7WOONZM%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.cs.princeton.edu%252F~san%252Fschipacig.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fwww.cs.princeton.edu%252F~san%252Fcigarette.html%3B410%3B517

I could hardly believe it, but he even did an ad for an American tobacco company. You can see his endorsement here:

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19500518&id=Q_dUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EZMDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2443,2964999

For those of you not interested in/able to view the ad itself, here's the copy:

"On my arrival in Australia I was delighted to find that I could obtain my favorite cigarette--Golden Gate cigarettes. A singer must be extremely careful what he smokes, and I, therefore, when smoking, always insist on Golden Gate cigarettes because they are the purest blend obtainable. I find they are not only a delightful smoke, but they do not harm the throat. To all my friends I say, "For the sweetest, smoothest, most satisfying smoke, buy Golden Gate American Blend Cigarettes."

Considering that smoking can inflame the cords enough to lower the whole range by as much as a minor third, no wonder there were so many tenors singing all the big arias transposed. It makes me wonder, how much more beautiful could these voices have been if they had only known a little more about vocal health...

Anyway, I hope that wasn't too long. I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on the matter!

All the best,
Clayton

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Clayton, for a very interesting comment. Re the big voice, yes, he tended always to be monochromatic. He did have a mezza-voce, but it was muffled and somewhat "fuzzy" There was no squillo down low, such as we find find in Gigli, especially. Caruso had to crank up the sound to get the "ring." He had very little training, or education of any kind, for that matter, so he "did what came naturally," and his voice was such that the big sound was natural, but hard on his voice. He was quite young when he died, and his voice had already thickened considerably. As far as smoking, it was common back in the teens, 20's and 30's. Tenors, and other opera singers, sometimes smoked: Gigli, Caruso, Volker, etc. It does make the voice somewhat cloudy, but I doubt if it lowered the natural range too much. Strong drink is much worse. The old phrase "whisky tenor" sort of tells the story there. But even then, there were exceptions. McCormack was known not to be unduely adverse to the bottle, and it didn't hurt him too much. And God knows Bjorling wasn't! He was a two fisted drinker, as, I hear, Fritz Wunderlich was also. These things are probably more interesting to the degree they are indicative of a general lifestyle, and an attitude toward taking care of oneself.

Thanks again for an interesting comment!

mluery said...

About Caruso: His singing was an extraordinary combination of ele- gance and passion. I don't think he ever recorded a syllable with out a perfect legato