(1873-1921) One of the definitive voices of the 20th century, Enrico Caruso was that rarest of creatures: a truly great artist with a mass popular following.
Caruso was a singing superstar, with a voice that was born to make recordings that would ravish the senses of an adoring public. His career among the very first to be built on that unholy, and thoroughly modern, alliance of tremendous natural talent, prowess in the recording studio, and brilliant management and PR. Opera was, of course, his main focus, but throughout his more than 250 recordings, mostly released as 78s by the Victor Talking Machine Co., he encompassed most musical genres from Verdi, Bizet and Puccini (his contemporary) to Neapolitan song and pop music, one of his best sellers was ‘Over There’, a jaunty song for the US army in World War I.
He was undeniably a crowd-pleaser and his showmanship was legendary, delighting his audiences in America where his career especially thrived under the guidance of Edward Bernays, an expert in ‘crowd psychology’ and one of the pioneers of
modern public relations.
Caruso’s voice had its flaws: he was never entirely comfortable at the very top of his range. A ringing top C tended to elude him, and he often had to transpose. But the recordings preserve a voice that has an effortless, easy-going flow even in the cramped confines of an early studio, with a rich and powerful low to middle register and highly charged top notes that seem completely attuned to the new, dramatic verismo style that had emerged at the end of the 19th century.
Though his life was inexorably draw to the US, Caruso’s charm and his cheek remained distinctly Italian. He scandalised New York after he was arrested for indecent assault at the New York Zoo, outside the monkey house. He was found guilty of pinching a lady’s bottom, but claimed that a monkey had done it.
Caruso is one of the earliest great singers whose voice remains alive to us today through his recordings. His influence continues to be felt even now: listen to any great operatic tenor – Domingo, Pavarotti – and there are certain mannerisms and turns of phrase which make you think, ‘Ah yes, that’s straight from the mouth of Caruso!’
In his own words: ‘I never step on the stage without asking myself whether I will succeed in finishing the opera.’
Greatest recording: Enrico Caruso – Complete RCA Recordings RCA 82876603962 (12 discs)