The Great Caruso

He was the most famous person in the world. More famous than Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Mae West or the pope. His appearances were advertised with handbills that specified, HIMSELF! REALLY! below his name. Your great- grand parents knew him even if they were tone deaf. During the first years of the 20th century, no one more was more famous than tenor Enrico Caruso.

Caruso died in Naples on August 2, 1921. He was forty-eight. Thirty years after his death, the Neapolitan tenor got the Hollywood treatment with Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso.  I’m not a GC-basher at all. It’s a lot of fun and filled with great music. But MGM would have you believe Caruso dropped dead on stage in mid-aria, rather in his hotel suite overlooking the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. He died of peritonitis from botched surgery.

Caruso and the recording industry grew up together. His first recordings were made in Milan in 1902 for England’s Gramophone and Typewriter Company. They were the first operatic recordings to be widely distributed. Over 100 years later they are still in print and they can still enthrall. Listen to the young tenor in Questo o quella from Verdi’s Rigoletto. This was a twenty nine year old who the year before was so poor he was photographed in a bed sheet since his only shirt was in the wash.

Caruso was great copy. He was arrested in 1907 for pinching a lady’s bottom in the Central Park zoo. He had two sons by his long time mistress, Ada Giachetti, who dumped him for the family chauffeur. Caruso married only once, to a Park Avenue socialite nearly thirty years his junior. Their daughter Gloria was born in 1919.

Caruso tried silent movies (!) and his appearances at war bond rallies during World War I earned millions. He was known to be warm hearted, kind and generous. He was friend to composers like Verdi, Puccini and Mahler, he was respectful to conductors and-usually-gracious to prima donnas.

As a hobby, Caruso became a noted caricaturist, and he’d draw cartoons all day and give the earnings to charity. When told one of his sketches would fetch $500 he said, “Ha! Better to stop singing and draw!”

Kind or unkind, it was the voice that captured all hearts. As a young man Caruso had a lighter, more fluid sound, with the highest notes filled with squillo (ring). Later on it became more dramatic and almost baritonal.   His was a sensational sound married to a gregarious personality. His preparation was meticulous. To research what became his final role, in La Juive, he haunted the shulls of the Lower East of New York to research the goldsmith Eleazar.

Two tenors who were near contemporaries, Beniamino Gigli and Giovanni Martinelli,  both maintained they were  “not worthy to tie Caruso’s shoes.” (What they really said was a good deal earthier). The recordings are one hundred years old and more, and the few feet of silent film are jerky, but when the old audio haze parts-even for a moment-was get the Italian sun that was Caruso.

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