This is the eighth and final installment of my cursory tour through the recorded legacy of Enrico Caruso. The last two years of Caruso’s recording life contained relatively few operatic numbers. As mentioned, there wasn’t much left for him to put to disc. In February of 1919 he got together with Giuseppe De Luca and recorded a spirited version of Venti scudi from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Even at this late stage of his career he could muster the lightness of tone needed for Nemorino. The same easy vocal production is evident in his recording of Tosti’s A vucchella.
Ernesto De Curtis’s Neapolitan staple Tu, ca nun chiagne was also recorded in 1919. Caruso, singing in his native dialect, brings passion and ringing high notes to this song about separation. His cry of “Voglio e te!” (“I want you!”) is very moving. The insertion of a high note on the repetition of the phrase is particularly effective, especially when the note has enough ping to shatter glass. Every Italian tenor sings this number, but only Di Stefano in his prime is in the same class with Caruso.
He again turned to the Brazilian Antonio Carlos Gomes. Mia piccirella is from his 1874 opera Salvator Rosa (the 17th century Neapolitan painter). Set to a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni, the first act takes place in Salvator Rosa’s studio in Naples in 1647. The aria is a song that the young Gennariello who has attached himself to the painter has composed as a seduction aid. Gershwin had a similar song which for obvious reasons he never published. Originally written for a soprano Caruso sings a transposed version. There’s no gender problem since the soprano was playing a young man.
In January 1920 Caruso recorded a rather grave version of Handel’s “Ombra mai fù“. The only aria in opera that I know of which is sung to a tree. If anyone knows another I’d love to hear about it. If you listen very carefully you can hear a brief trill.
Caruso last appeared at the Met in Halévy’s La Juive. The opera had been brought back to the Met in a new production in November of 1919. Caruso appeared in it 13 times. The unlucky 13th performance was on Christmas Eve 1920. Immediately following that performance he became seriously ill. He died the following August. At his penultimate recording session in September 1920 he recorded Eléazar’s great aria Rachel, quand du Seigneur. The voice is dark and rich. The interpretation is noble, but there is the barest hint of strain in his high notes. After 25 years of singing and more of two pack a day cigarette smoking it’s not surprising. Someone once described him as the world’s most spectacular case of emphysema.
Caruso made the ultimate good career move. He died while he was still at the top. He had done everything that it was possible for him to do. There was no period of sad decline or annoying hanging on. Imperfect as acoustic recordings were, the resplendence of his voice still connects with listeners both casual and serious. No tenor after him had the brilliance and richness of tone that was his. None the complete control over range and dynamics that he had. There have been many great tenors after him, but none at his height.
Caruso’s recordings have been issued many times by many companies. Any serious opera lover will want a complete collection of them. The best one I know of is the 12 disc set released by Naxos. The recordings have all been remastered by the brilliant sound engineer Ward Marston. This is the set I advise you to buy. The only problem is that it is hard to find. Marston has gotten as close to the original sound as I think possible. His rendering of the recordings is vastly superior to any other I’ve heard.