Caruso’s first recording in 1914 was the only one he ever made with his great coeval Titta Ruffo. Allegedly, they also recorded the first act duet from La Gioconda at the same session, but destroyed the matrix before it could be released. Why, if the story is true, the recording was axed is unknown
Caruso and Ruffo were such big stars that almost no house could afford to hire them both. It’s also likely that ego limited their joint appearances. Caruso who drew caricatures of virtually everyone he knew made none of Ruffo, doubtless because they intersected so rarely. Si, pel ciel from Verdi’s Otello captures both singers at their vocal peaks, though Caruso’s response to the news about Desdemona’s handkerchief is a little anemic. He sometimes found it hard to throw himself into the emotional cauldron of a role in front of the recording horn. It was easier to get into a role on stage in front of an audience.
Caruso, as I mentioned previously, never sang Otello in performance. He was rumored to be considering it before he was stricken by his fatal illness. He would have been a superb Otello. Ruffo’s dark baritone was as miraculous an instrument as Caruso’s. It’s a great loss that they didn’t make more recordings together.
By 1914 Caruso was running out of standard repertory items, so he more frequently turned to songs and operatic rarities such as Gomes’s act 1 duet from Il Guarany Sento una forza indomita. The soprano is Emmy Destinn. Unlike many acoustical recording this manages to give a good sense of what the celebrated soprano really sounded like. The music, however, is pedestrian.
Gaetano Errico Pennino Neapolitan song Pecchè?, which is still performed, was given an idiomatic reading complete with mandolin accompaniment in January of 1915. At the same session Caruso recorded Angelo casto e bel from Donizetti’s Il Duca D’Alba. He’s still comfortable in a bel canto role even if on the robust side of the genre.
Tosti’s famous song Luna d’estate recorded in 1916 shows Caruso’s effortless transition from piano to forte. He could do this with delicacy and beauty throughout the widest dynamic range. His complete control of an aria’s dynamics is again shown in his recording of Ô Souverain,ô Juge, ô Père! from Massenet’s infrequently performed Le Cid.
Caruso’s also recorded Ah, la paterna mano from Verdi’s Macbeth in 1916. The opera was not often staged at that time and even if it were Caruso would not sing in it as the tenor, Macduff, has little more to do than sing a great aria in the final act. Caruso’s version of it is the best I’ve heard. He has more voice than the light tenor usually assigned the part. His burnished tone and sensitively phrased interpretation set him aside from all others who have recorded this aria which is now a often included as a recital piece.
Caruso’s singing of the bass aria Vecchia zimarra from Puccini’s La Boheme was also recorded in 1916. It was not released during the tenor’s lifetime; he said it wouldn’t be fair to the basses. He sent it to friends as an unusual gift. The bass Andrés De Segurola lost his voice during an 1913 performance of the opera in Philadelphia. Caruso, who knew this might happen as De Segurola had told him he had a sore throat, had the bass mouth the words while he sang the aria. Remarkably, no one seems to have noticed that Rodolfo was singing Colline’s music. His recording is in the original bass key. This is the ultimate in dark voiced tenors.
The final selection in this installment of my survey is Cantique de Noël (O holy night). I’ve included it because everybody knows it and because Caruso sings it with such sweetness and power. At this stage of his career he seems to have been able to do just about anything with his voice. We can forgive the aspirated syllable at the end.
More to come.