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Born into a poor Neapolitan family, Caruso was the third of seven children, of whom only three survived infancy. After receiving a basic education he studied technical draftsmanship and at the age of eleven was apprenticed to an engineer who made water fountains. Later he worked with his father, a mechanic and foundry worker, at the Meuricoffre factory in Naples. Meanwhile he sang in his local church choir and in 1889, after the death the year before of his mother, who had encouraged him to pursue his musical ambitions, he began to take singing lessons with Guglielmo Vergine.

To support his family, Caruso worked as a street singer from 1891, also performing in cafes and at soirées. After a short period of military service, completed in 1894, he made his operatic stage debut in 1895 at the Teatro Nuovo, Naples, in the opera L’amico Francesco by the amateur composer Domenico Morelli. Further tuition followed with Vincenzo Lombardi, who also taught Antonio Scotti and Pasquale Amato: this improved Caruso’s range and vocal style. He secured engagements in several smaller Italian opera houses, appeared in Cairo in 1896, at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo in 1897 and sang in Russia during the 1897–1898 season.

In 1897 Caruso auditioned for Puccini for the part of Rodolfo / La Bohème in Livorno; after hearing him the composer is reputed to have exclaimed: ‘Who sent you to me? God himself?’ In the same year he created the role of Federico in Cilea’s L’Arlesiana at the Teatro Lirico, Milan. His breakthrough occurred in November 1898 when he sang Loris in the first performance of Giordano’s Fedora, also at the Teatro Lirico, Milan. The composer, who was conducting, left this vivid recollection of the audience response after Caruso’s singing of the aria ‘Amor ti vieta’: ‘The applause was not mere hand clapping, but it seemed to be explosions of passion. The cheers became overwhelming. Caruso encored the aria, as soon as I, surprised by that insistent, intoxicating storm, was able to calm down and start conducting again. The delirium was ecstatic and then there was a second encore and then another. The third act was a crescendo of enthusiasm… Fedora had been consecrated with the new star. Caruso’s voice had conquered everyone’s heart.’

The following year Caruso made his debut at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires and in 1900 returned to Russia, where in St Petersburg and Moscow he sang Rodolfo, Edgardo / Lucia di Lammermoor and Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera, opposite the baritone Mattia Battistini. In the same year he first sang at La Scala, Milan, making his debut as Rodolfo, followed by Nemorino / L’elisir d’amore and participation in the Milan premiere of Mascagni’s Le maschere during 1901. By now Caruso was singing in the major Italian opera houses. In June 1902 he created the role of Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, having already created the role of Federico Loewe in Franchetti’s Germania at La Scala in March 1902.

Fred Gaisberg, who had heard Caruso in Germania, engaged him to record ten discs for the young Gramophone Company (then called the Gramophone and Typewriter Company) for the huge (at that time) sum of one hundred pounds. These records rapidly became international best-sellers and swiftly introduced Caruso to London, where he was engaged to sing at the Royal Opera House during the summer of 1902 as the Duke / Rigoletto opposite Nellie Melba, with whom he sang in the same year at Monte Carlo. Other roles in his first season in London included Radamès / Aida and Don Ottavio / Don Giovanni.

Having essayed the title role in Lohengrin (to which he was never to return) in Buenos Aires in 1901, Caruso returned to South America in 1903 to sing in Rio de Janeiro, where he had to encore ‘La donna è mobile’ (Rigoletto) five times. In the autumn of 1903 he sailed to New York to make his first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, once again as the Rigoletto Duke opposite Marcella Sembrich. As in Milan previously, following popular acclaim he signed an extraordinarily lucrative recording contract, this time with the Victor Company, whereby he was paid royalties on the sales of his recordings. This ensured an enormous income over time for him and his family.

The Met became the centre of Caruso’s operatic work. Here he sang the leading roles of the core Italian and French operatic repertoire, such as Radamès, Cavaradossi / Tosca, Rodolfo, Canio / Pagliacci, Enrico, the Rigoletto Duke, Nemorino, Alfredo / La traviata, Enzo / La Gioconda, Riccardo, Fernando / La favorita, Lionel / Martha (in Italian), Vasco de Gama / L’Africaine (in Italian), Raoul / Les Huguenots, Don José / Carmen and the title role in Gounod’s Faust, all undertaken during his first five seasons at the Met. In addition he sang the leading tenor roles in significant local premieres such as the first American performances of Fedora (1906), Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Adriana Lecouvreur, Mascagni’s Iris (all 1907) and Gustave Charpentier’s Julien (1914). In 1910 he created the part of Dick Johnson in the world premiere performances of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. His performance schedules at the Met were extremely heavy and undoubtedly took an eventual toll upon his health: in total he was to sing thirty-seven roles there in over 600 performances.

Alongside his continuing appearances in New York, Caruso remained active in Europe. He made his debut in Germany in 1904 as the Rigoletto Duke at the Berlin Court Opera; sang at Covent Garden between 1904 and 1907 and in 1913 and 1914; at the Paris Opera in 1908 and 1910; with the Metropolitan Opera on tour in 1910 at the Théâtre Châtelet, Paris as des Grieux / Manon Lescaut; and returned to Paris in 1912 with the Monte Carlo Opera. During 1913 he appeared in the major German cities, as well as in Vienna and Prague, and returned to Italy to give benefit performances as Canio in Rome (1914) and Milan (1915).

From 1917 Caruso began to add heavier roles to his repertoire at the Met, notably Samson / Samson et Dalila (1917), John of Leyden / Le Prophète (1918), Don Alvaro / La forza del destino (1918) and Eléazar / La Juive (1919). He continued to sing his existing repertoire and created the role of Flammen in Mascagni’s Lodoletta (1918).

Following an extensive concert tour during 1920 however, Caruso’s wife noticed a decline in his health. He had undergone successful surgery on his vocal chords in 1909, but now he suffered a throat haemorrhage during a performance of L’elisir d’amore at the Met towards the end of 1920. Although the rest of the performance was cancelled, he returned to sing Eléazar, giving what was to be his last public performance on Christmas Eve, 1920. Clearly very unwell, he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from pleurisy and empyema, and underwent a series of operations. He returned to Naples to recuperate but died shortly afterwards, the likely cause of his death being peritonitis arising from a burst subrenal abcess following examination under unhygienic conditions.

The distinguished Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti has suggested that Caruso’s extraordinary success was based upon the unique ‘fusion of a baritone’s full, burnished timbre’ with ‘the tenor’s smooth, silken finish, by turns brilliant and affecting’. This combination allowed for ‘melting sensuality’ and ‘outbursts of fiery, impetuous passion’ in the middle range, as well as ‘clarion brilliance’ in his high notes. Thus his unique sound, allied to his mastery of phrasing and dynamics, enabled him to dominate the performance of Italian and French opera during his lifetime, and for many years afterwards through his recordings. As he himself said: ‘My recordings will be my biography.’

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

View by Role: Classical Artist | Classical Composer | Lyricist
Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
Classical Documentary
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (1902-1903) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 2 (1903-1906) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 3 (1906-1908) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 4 (1908-1910) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 5 (1908-1910) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 6 (1911-1912) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 7 (1912-1913) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 8 (1913-1914) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 9 (1914-1916) Naxos Historical
Opera, Choral - Sacred, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 10 (1916-1917) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 11 (1918-1919) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal
CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 12 (1902-1920) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Choral - Sacred, Opera
GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952) Naxos Historical
GREATS of the GRAMOPHONE, Vol. 1 Naxos Nostalgia
MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 1 (1907) Naxos Historical

Role: Classical Composer 
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Role: Lyricist 
Album Title  Catalogue No  Work Category 

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12:21:22 AM, 28 November 2015
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