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:
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:
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.