Enrico Caruso

On this Day:

In 1920, Enrico Caruso gave his last public performance in NYC.

Enrico Caruso (25 February 1873 – 2 August 1921) was an Italian operatic tenor. He sang to great acclaim at the major opera houses of Europe and the Americas, appearing in a wide variety of roles from the Italian and French repertoires that ranged from the lyric to the dramatic. One of the first major singing talents to be commercially recorded, Caruso made 247 commercially released recordings from 1902 to 1920, which made him an international popular entertainment star.

Caruso’s 25-year career, stretching from 1895 to 1920, included 863 appearances with the New York Metropolitan Opera (both at the Met and on tour) before his death in 1921 at the age of 48. Thanks largely to his tremendously popular phonograph records, Caruso was one of the most famous entertainment personalities of his day, and his fame has continued to endure to the present. He was one of the first examples of a global media celebrity. Beyond records, Caruso’s name became familiar to millions throughout the world via newspapers, books, magazines, and the new media technology of the 20th century: cinema, the telephone, and telegraph.

Caruso toured widely both with the Metropolitan Opera touring company and on his own, giving hundreds of performances throughout Europe, and North and South America. He was a client of the noted promoter Edward Bernays, during the latter’s tenure as a press agent in the United States. Beverly Sills noted in an interview: “I was able to do it with television and radio and media and all kinds of assists. The popularity that Caruso enjoyed without any of this technological assistance is astonishing.”

Caruso biographers Pierre Key, Bruno Zirato and Stanley Jackson attribute Caruso’s fame not only to his voice and musicianship but also to a keen business sense and an enthusiastic embrace of commercial sound recording, then in its infancy. Many opera singers of Caruso’s time rejected the phonograph (or gramophone) owing to the low fidelity of early discs. Others, including Adelina Patti, Francesco Tamagno and Nellie Melba, exploited the new technology once they became aware of the financial returns that Caruso was reaping from his initial recording sessions.

Caruso made more than 260 extant recordings in America for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) from 1904 to 1920, and he and his heirs earned millions of dollars in royalties from the retail sales of these records. He was also heard live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910, when he participated in the first public radio broadcast to be transmitted in the United States.

Edward José (left), the director of the film My Cousin, is seen with Caruso during a break in filming
Caruso also appeared in two motion pictures. In 1918, he played a dual role in the American My Cousin (silent film, entirely restored in July 2021) for Paramount Pictures. This film included a sequence depicting him on stage performing the aria Vesti la giubba from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci. The following year Caruso played a character called Cosimo in another film, The Splendid Romance. Producer Jesse Lasky paid Caruso $100,000 each to appear in these two efforts but My Cousin flopped at the box office, and The Splendid Romance was apparently never released. Brief candid glimpses of Caruso offstage have been preserved in contemporary newsreel footage.

While Caruso sang at such venues as La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House, in London, the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, he appeared most often at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where he was the leading tenor for 18 consecutive seasons. It was at the Met, in 1910, that he created the role of Dick Johnson in Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West.

Caruso’s voice extended up to high D-flat in its prime and grew in power and weight as he grew older. At times, his voice took on a dark, almost baritonal coloration. He sang a broad spectrum of roles, ranging from lyric, to spinto, to dramatic parts, in the Italian and French repertoires. In the German repertoire, Caruso sang only two roles, Assad (in Karl Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba) and Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, both of which he performed in Italian in Buenos Aires in 1899 and 1901, respectively.

Caruso possessed a phonogenic voice which was “manly and powerful, yet sweet and lyrical”, to quote the singer/author John Potter. He became one of the first major classical vocalists to make numerous recordings. Caruso and the disc phonograph, known in the United Kingdom as the gramophone did much to promote each other in the first two decades of the 20th century. Many of Caruso’s recordings have remained continuously available since their original issue over a century ago, and all of his surviving recordings (including several unissued takes) have been remastered and reissued several times over the years. Although recordings of complete operas have been available since the early 1900s, (Carmen in 1908 for example), Caruso never participated in a complete opera recording (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

I was doing admissions for an opera performance being a retrospective of the work of Enrico Caruso at my college last night when an older gentleman handed me his ticket and said, “Excuse me – can I get in with this ticket?” His wife and I were a bit confused, but I looked at his ticket and said: “Well yes, this is perfectly fine. Why do you ask?”

“Well this ticket says ‘General Admission,’ but I’m only a colonel.”…

Second, a Song:

Santa Lucia is a traditional Neapolitan song. It was transcribed by Teodoro Cottrau (1827-1879) and published by the Cottrau firm, as a “barcarolla”, at Naples in 1849. Cottrau translated it from Napuletano into Italian during the first stage of the Risorgimento, the first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics. Its transcriber, who is very often credited as its composer, was the son of the French-born Italian composer and collector of songs Guillaume Louis Cottrau (1797-1847).

The Neapolitan lyrics of “Santa Lucia” celebrate the picturesque waterfront district, Borgo Santa Lucia, in the Bay of Naples, in the invitation of a boatman to take a turn in his boat, the better to enjoy the cool of the evening (from YouTube.com).

Here is Enrico Caruso in a digitally remastered recording of Santa Lucia from 1916, courtesy of Tom Frøkjær and YouTube.com. I think this is an incredible rendition by Enrico Caruso, especially considering it is over 100 years old and from the earliest times of recording. I hope you enjoy this!

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX4SzE_GDRE)

Thought for the Day:

“I never step upon a stage without asking myself whether I will succeed in finishing the opera. The fact is that a conscientious singer is never sure of himself or of anything. He is ever in the hands of Destiny.” – Enrico Caruso

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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