When Enrico Caruso died on August 2, 1921 (a seeming veteran but only 48), "Nessun dorma" was unwritten and televised World Cup Soccer undreamt of. But perhaps only the Three Tenors phenomenon has approached Caruso in putting a universal public face on opera. Each of today's famous tenorial trio has acknowledged a debt to Caruso and repaid it in his repertory choices and the splendor of his best singing. Each perhaps embodies aspects of the Caruso legend, comprised of an irresistible Everyman quality, a radiantly "phonogenic" timbre, incredible industriousness and professionalism, an underlying baritonal tonal strength and a command of popular admiration and loyalty through considerable personal trials.
But Caruso reigned supreme in an age before radio, television, or the Internet. Cinema, still silent, only made him look silly; the technology that aided his conquest was the phonograph. Still a tenor-on-the-rise when he tossed off ten arias for the Gramophone and Telegraph Company in a Milan hotel room on April 11, 1902, he became the blueprint for the successful recording artist. Despite the primitive technology, his strong clear voice took to the new medium brilliantly while many others did not.
He was the first singer to arrive in London and New York with substantial public interest stoked by records. Even those well beyond the reach of live performance could enjoy Caruso's records: indeed his recordings were a prime reason people bought phonographs. On the sage advice of Victor's artistic director Emilio de Gogorza (baritone and husband of the tenor's frequent Met co-star Emma Eames), he signed a royalty contract rather than getting paid in full on the spot. This foresight brought him two million dollars of royalties in his lifetime alone.
The third and first surviving of seven children, Caruso endured a desperately poor upbringing in Naples marked by the death of his mother when he was 15. Success as a church treble led him to defy his father and forge a career in music, and in 1895 he made a debut in his hometown's low-prestige Teatro Nuovo in the forgotten first of his eleven world premieres. Another world premiere proved his career's turning point: Loris in Fedora at Milan's Teatro Lirico in 1898. "After that the contracts descended on me like a big rainstorm," he later observed. The most important subsequent premieres were Adriana Lecouvreur at the Lirico in 1902 and La Fanciulla del West at the Met in 1910 under Arturo Toscanini.
When the thirty-year-old Caruso arrived in New York he was far from a beginner. He had already conquered Milan, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires and Covent Garden, where he tried out diverse repertory (Lohengrin was dropped after three Argentine ventures and Don Giovanni fell by the wayside after two outings in London). He bowed at the Met on November 23, 1903, in a Rigoletto with Marcella Sembrich, Louise Homer and longtime friend Antonio Scotti. While it was a success it was not a triumph. However, within three weeks, following performances in Aida and Pagliacci (two works whose popularity he would establish forever), and Tosca and Bohème‹all sung to increasingly delirious acclaim‹Caruso had clearly ushered in a new era.
Caruso arrived on the international scene at the perfect time. Verismo was at its peak and his ability to negotiate its relatively heavy orchestrations paved his way, especially in the key Puccini roles. Some critics and aficionados favored rival Alessandro Bonci in operas like L'Elisir d'Amore that required an older style of bel canto elegance. After a while they, too, learned to enjoy the tonal freshness, dynamic scope and sheer verve that Caruso brought to such works.
The New York Sun's exacting W. J. Henderson capitulated in full (after hearing Caruso's "Cielo e mar" in La Gioconda) with the much-quoted dictum: "The fact now to be recorded is that the public has gone to the opera almost solely for the purpose of hearing Enrico Caruso…. The invariable request at the box-office has been, 'Can you let me have seats for Caruso's next appearance?'" Despite co-stars and conductors, the likes of Geraldine Farrar and Toscanini, whose names read gloriously, the tenor became, in the public mind, the company, to an extent unrivalled even by such tremendously popular artists who followed him, including Lawrence Tibbett, Lily Pons, Kirsten Flagstad, and Risë Stevens.
Part of this related to his status as an exemplar of the Old World's "American Dream." When Kaiser Wilhelm jokingly invited him to reside in Berlin, Caruso gravely replied, "Your Majesty, my gratitude to America will be extinguished only with my death." He told Scotti he would keep his career Met-centered before retiring to Italy; this proved true, shockingly early. When Caruso sang "Over there" and married an American girl (Dorothy Park Benjamin), he became not just a Metropolitan, but a national, icon.
While entertaining society hostesses, he never lost sight of the chauffeurs and maids (especially not the maids‹he was an incorrigible womanizer); when winking at the all-powerful Met boxholders he didn't ignore the people cheering him from the top balconies. For all New Yorkers, whether from Fifth Avenue, Mulberry Street or Hester Street‹and, I would venture, for most European immigrants‹Enrico Caruso was opera.
His performance listings make staggering reading, compelling equal parts of disbelief (for the tenor's sheer industriousness) and envy (for the audiences that heard him). Although Giovanni Martinelli in his 32 seasons outpaced him as Radamès 123 to 91, in his other most frequent roles Caruso set Met records, logging an incredible 115 Canios to Martinelli's 68 and edging out Richard Tucker by two Rodolfos (55). In all, he sang 37 roles with the company. Besides creating Fanciulla's Johnson, he sang the company premieres of Adriana, Armide, Butterfly, Forza, Manon Lescaut and several lesser works.
After reaping laurels with the "Tamagno parts" of Samson (1916) and Le Prophète's Jean (1918), Caruso set himself a challenge with Eléazar. La Juive hadn't been heard at the Met since the German-language seasons three decades before. Happily installed at his Tuscan villa in the summer of 1919, he worked obsessively on the five-act score, and as he always did with French and English, transcribed every syllable phonetically. Throughout his European travels Caruso had enjoyed visiting synagogues to study cantors' vocal techniques. Back in New York, he spoke with Yiddish Theater actors and conferred with Orthodox rabbis on getting details of clothing and ritual right.
Artur Bodanzky led the opening night of the new production of La Juive on November 22, 1919. Caruso's principal colleagues were the stylish bass Léon Rothier and Ponselle, in her only collaboration with the tenor besides Forza. Critics and audiences marveled at the dignity, power and detail of Caruso's portrayal. He sang with the company 47 times that season, including 10 Eléazars (one apiece in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Atlanta). Given his achievement and reception in Halévy's work, it's not surprising that Juive was chosen for his sixteenth season opening November 15, 1920. Richard Aldrich of the Times described the tenor's final confrontation with Rothier's staunch Cardinal Brogni:
Here Mr. Caruso is a tragic actor and discloses resources of tragic power that he has never before disclosed in the same potency. It is a scene that he has evidently studied seriously; and his composition of it in pose, gesture, facial expression… is matched by the poignant intensity of his declamation in the baleful color he imparts to the musical phrase. It is operatic acting of a high order.
Caruso's subsequent weeks brought scenery mishaps in Samson, unexplained awful pains in Pagliacci and a "night of horror" when he spit blood and had to abandon a Brooklyn Elisir and cancel the next one. He had however sung the superstitiously feared Forza without mishap. The nervously suggestible Ponselle frequently voiced her thankfulness that she was not onstage for Caruso's final performance on Christmas Eve. That fell to Florence Easton, the supremely versatile Briton whom he had frequently partnered in Lodoletta. The next day he collapsed in agony, with pleurisy diagnosed. Hopes rose and fell for a return to the company but, having sailed home to Naples, he died eight months later. The Met was shrouded in black; the world mourned its Tenor.
"New Carusos" have since been proclaimed countless times; an Internet search for this phrase yields results at once comical and sobering. Some of the "new Carusos" (like Bjoerling, Tucker and the World Cup Three) have turned out splendidly: as themselves. Many others clearly have not.
Caruso's ghost loomed large at the Met. Fanciulla vanished until 1929 and Elisir until 1930. La Juive returned in December 1924 with Martinelli. Widely praised for his absorption of the Caruso model, the distinguished tenor logged 31 Eléazars, including, in 1936, Juive's last Met performances until this month. We might ponder Martinelli's (oft-reiterated) final judgment on the Met's centenary honoree: "If you were to put together the voices and talents of Gigli, Pertile, Martinelli, Lauri-Volpi, Schipa and the rest, their combination still wouldn't be fit to kiss Enrico Caruso's shoes."