About this Recording
8.110721 - CARUSO, Enrico: Complete Recordings, Vol. 6 (1911-1912)

Complete Caruso Volume 6

On 13th November 1911, six days before the first recordings on this CD, the Metropolitan Opera season opened with a performance of Aida, conducted by Toscanini, the very same opera which had launched his career as the Met’s chief conductor three years earlier. On that occasion, Toscanini had been greeted by the New York Times as ‘a strenuous force, a dominating power, a musician of infinite resource’. The review had continued:

The orchestra sounded of greater richness and fullness in this fine score, and seldom have so many of the finer details of it been so well brought out. ... That it was from time to time too powerful and covered the voices of the singers was a part of the ... character of the performance. The prevailing spirit influenced every member of the cast, apparently to strive for the strenuous in a similar degree. It needed nothing so potent to loosen the vocal cords of Caruso, who reappeared in the part of Radames, and sang with probably more power, with more insistent dwelling on the highest tones, with more prodigal expenditure of his resources than even he has achieved before.

On that opening night of 1908, Caruso had perhaps been concerned to make a point. It was Toscanini who had conducted his début at La Scala in La Bohème eight years before, at a point in his career when his voice was still rather light and inclined to be less than reliable on the top notes. He was no doubt keen to let the maestro know what progress had been made since then, and we can guess that, whatever voices the orchestra managed to overpower, Caruso’s was not one of them.

Caruso’s capacity for work during these years was colossal. It would be unthinkable for a star performer today to emulate his schedule at the beginning of that 1908—09 season. The Aida which opened it was on a Monday. Two days before that, he had played Faust at the new Academy of Music in Brooklyn. On Tuesday, he was in Philadelphia, appearing as Rodolfo in La Bohème. On Thursday, he was Pinkerton to Geraldine Farrar’s Butterfly. The following day, at the last minute, he deputised for Alessandro Bonci in La Traviata, and twenty-four hours later, on Saturday, he was on stage again as Cavaradossi. Six performances in eight days, each night in a different rôle. Nor was that the only time he achieved such a feat. During the last eight days of the Met’s Paris visit in 1910 (their first ever season in a foreign country), Caruso again sang six times in eight days. In France, as everywhere else, he had quickly become the darling of the public, who loved him for his generous, open manner and his warm response to their interest in his activities.

By 1911 Caruso had committed nearly all the best-known tenor arias to disc, those, at any rate, that were part of his own repertoire. One gap that remained was Una furtiva lagrima, which until now had only been available in a version with piano accompaniment that required the customer to buy two discs, one ten-inch and one twelve-inch. Oddly, the new version with orchestra (track 9) was given the same matrix number as part 2 of the 1904 recording, with the suffix ‘2’ to indicate that this was the second take: Victor’s usual custom was only to keep the same number when both artist and accompaniment remained unchanged. Celeste Aida (track 14) was another item already in the catalogue, but like the three early versions with piano, the 1908 orchestral recording had omitted the preceding recitative, a defect which was now remedied.

Of the six Verdi operas in which he performed, Aida, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, La Forza del Destino and Un Ballo in Maschera, Caruso had already recorded excerpts from all except the last. Two items were now made available (tracks 1 and 12), at the same time as the duet from the last Act of La Forza del Destino (tracks 7 and 8) in which Alvaro pleads unsuccessfully with Carlo to lay their feud to rest. Like the duet from Act III for the same characters, which Caruso had recorded with Scotti in 1906 (see Complete Caruso Volume 3), this is a superb example of how expressively Verdi can combine the sonorities of tenor and baritone.

As the gaps in the operatic catalogue became progressively fewer, songs came to play an increasingly large part in Caruso’s recording activity. There are four examples on this disc, including the ever popular Core ’ngrato (track 6) and Love is Mine (track 11), only the second number he had ever recorded in English. But the field of opera was not yet entirely barren, and lesser known repertoire could yield a small but worthwhile crop. Carlos Gomes (1836—96) was a Brazilian who, musically speaking, became thoroughly Italianised and spent most of his life in Italy. His opera Lo Schiavo, dealing with the subject of black slavery, was written at a time when abolition was still being carried out in Brazil. Rather better known is Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, which still finds the occasional performance today. Although he claimed to have found the subject first, Leoncavallo lost out in the race for completion, and his opera was first performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1897, a year after Puccini’s. Though the two works share much of the same material, Leoncavallo’s lacks the sublime charm and sweetness of its great rival. When listening to the items recorded by Caruso (tracks 3 and 4), it needs to be borne in mind that in this version Rodolfo is sung by a baritone, while the tenor takes the part of Marcello.

Early recordings of opera had gone down two quite distinct paths. There was the star singer’s individual excerpt, issued at the highest price (Victor’s ‘red label’); and there was the complete opera (or as complete as the company chose to make it), using mostly unknown singers and costing much less per disc. Victor had made no move down the latter path at all, but in January 1910 they made a tentative move to combine the two approaches, with an all-star cast recording two extended scenes from Faust (see Complete Caruso Volume 5). Two years later they applied the same treatment to a scene from Flotow’s Martha, culminating in the spinning-wheel quartet, sung with delightful spirit and an admirable unity of ensemble (tracks 15—17). It is followed here (track 18) by another beautiful quartet from the end of the same Act.

Hugh Griffith

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