The Recordings of Enrico Caruso 1908 – 1909

Caruso wing collarMore than a year separated Caruso’s last recording in 1907 from his first in 1908. In July he recorded (for the second time) the quartet from Rigoletto (Bella figlia dell’amore). His colleagues were Marcella Sembrich, Gina Severina, and Antonio Scotti. This recording finds him at the peak of his powers. Notice how the acoustic horn picks up his voice so much better than the other singers and how it fails to capture to overtones of the women. Perhaps  Caruso was standing much closer to it than the others. Regardless, he sound like he’s in a different vocal universe.The good state of his voice is remarkable considering that he had surgery for vocal nodes in 1907 and was to have further surgery for the same condition in 1909.

In October of  ’08 he recorded Deserto in terra from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano twice. The second take was not released until 1948. It’s clearly inferior to the first recording which is so good I can’t imagine why Caruso took another shot at the aria. His lyrical filatura is matched by brilliant high notes. No one else has the whole package that he displays in this recording. The second version is rushed (almost a minute shorter) and lacks the subtlety and brilliance of the first. It’s best ignored.

Paolo Tosti

Caruso's caricature of Paolo Tosti

Caruso’s approach to the Italian songs of his time has been occasionally criticized as too much of a good thing. Some think that the more restrained and subtle approach taken by the McCormack, Tauber, and Schipa gets more out of these slight pieces than Caruso’s more robust approach. I don’t think this is right for two reasons. Di Stefano’s take on these songs (which is as good as it gets) though often restrained is also wildly passionate. Caruso could show a refined and nuanced style with this music. Pour un baiser (recorded in 1909) Tosti’s song to a French text illustrates how he could match his voice to the demands of a simple piece. And when a lot of voice is needed he has it.

If there’s a lack of subtly its in E lucevan le stelle where he goes full voice through piece’s passionate climax either unable or unwilling to take the line “Le belle forme disciogliea dai veli!” down to a whisper the way Di Stefano does with such telling effect. It’s a perfectly valid way of singing the aria and it the way most great tenors have sung it. But while Caruso is great, Di Stefano is inspired. Tucker and Björling sing the piece the way Caruso did. Corelli, at least in the 50s, made the same effect on “disciogliea” as did Di Stefano only he did not have the same beauty of tone as GDS.

Giuseppe Verdi

Caruso's caricature of Giuseppe Verdi

Karl Goldmark’s opera The Queen of Sheba is rarely done today. It was popular during Caruso’s time. It’s best known aria is in its second act. Caruso sings it in Italian as Magiche note . He takes the ending falsetto which is the way his great coeval Leo Slezak also sang it.

On the 7th of November 1909 he recorded the Flower Song from Carmen in Italian (Il fior che avevi a me tu dato) and French (La fleur que tu mavais jetee). Both version are quite good, but I prefer the French.

The tenor’s last recording in 1909 was Miserere, Ah! che la morte ognora from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. The soprano is Frances Alda. The tenor part, of course, is sung off stage in the opera house. Here Caruso’s head is half way down the recording horn. Thus, the effect is nothing like that intended by Verdi, but it does show just how beautiful Caruso’s voice was. The cut was never released as it was made without chorus. It was done over with a chorus in the beginning of 1910.

1910 was an extraordinarily active year for Caruso in the recording studio. I’ll start the next part of my casual survey of the tenor’s recording at that point.

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