In the mid 1950’s RCA Records issued a deluxe compilation of many of Enrico Caruso’s recordings. The multi-disc set was enclosed in a faux leather case and contained a well illustrated booklet written (though not with strict accuracy) by the Met’s then assistant general manager Francis Robinson. Since purchasing that collection, I’ve been buying different releases of the same Caruso recordings for longer than the great Neapolitan tenor lived.
Having multiple copies of every recording Caruso made I decided to systematically relisten to them in chronological sequence. Caruso’s relationship with the phonograph was the ultimate in symbiosis. He made the recording industry and it made him the most famous artist in the world.
His first recording session was in a hotel room in Milan in 1902. The 10 recordings he made on April 10 of that year are full of miscues and errors of style, but they do show a beautiful lyric tenor that does not have the baritonal richness that characterizes his later work. They were made in one take each which eliminated any chance to fix problems.
Caruso had scored a big success in the premiere of Franchetti’s Germania the month before he recorded Ah vieni qui… No, non chiuder gli occhi from that now forgotten opera. The Germania aria is much better sung than some of the other more familiar selections from the first session. There’s a sweetness to the voice in this aria that was later replaced by power. The same is true Una furtiva lagrima. He kept Nemorino in his repertoire until the end of his career.
The initial recordings were a financial, if not completely an artistic, success. Accordingly, Caruso made seven new recordings – again in Milan – on November 30, 1902. Two were repeats of botched numbers from the first session. The concluding high note of “Celeste Aida” was taken falsetto the first time around and omitted entirely on the second go. He eventually got it right.
Caruso had created the role of Loris in Giordano’s Fedora in 1898. He recorded Amor ti vieta with the composer at the piano. He doesn’t end the piece as written but slows it down. A much more effective conclusion which Giordano must have realized since he went along with it. He also recorded Vesti la giubba for the first time. Canio in Pagliacci, of course, was the role most closely identified with him. In this recording his voice is free and his breath control is spacious.
Caruso’s October 1903 recording of Qui sotto il ciel from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots shows the further development of his voice. There’s less vibrato and more of the trumpet-like tone associated with his voice at full blast. In 1904 he signed an exclusive contract with the Victor company and made all of his recordings thereafter in the United States except for two he made in Milan in April of the same year. He made his Met debut in 1903 on opening night and in effect became the house tenor for the next 17 years.
His first session for the Victor Talking Machine Company was on February 1, 1904, in Carnegie Hall. The first recording he made for Victor was Questa o quella from Rigoletto, the opera of his American and Met debut five weeks earlier. Here the voice is pure lyric. He sings with complete security no longer intimidated by the recording process. Equally impressive and lyrical is the Siciliana from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, an opera he sang only six times at the Met compared to his 116 performances as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
Leoncavallo’s Mattinata was the first of the last two recordings Caruso made outside of the US. The composer accompanies him. The song presents no technical difficulties for Caruso. Nevertheless he sings it with the same style and vocal beauty as would the most challenging aria. The second aria was “Je crois entendre encore” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. In Italian Mi par d’udir ancor. It’s not nearly as good as Gigli’s famous recording of the piece nor is it as good as Caruso would make it when he recorded it again. The falsetto high note near the aria’s end is poorly done.