The Young Caruso

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Lollobrigida. The voice of Del Monaco, Chénier, Fedora, Pagliacci, songs. (1951). 93m. English dialog. + Del Monaco Highlights (1953), Traviata (2, w. the voice of Fineschi), Rigoletto, Tosca (Highlights are the same as in Video #7, Opera Titans) + Caruso documentary (1960), including silent footage, excerpts from records and narration + My Cousin (excerpt from Caruso’s 1918 silent film) with “Mattinata” by Leoncavallo added as a soundtrack, with the composer at the piano. B&W/Color.
NTSC VHS


Caruso and His Influence
By Stefan Zucker

To understand the changes Caruso initiated let’s consider two tenors who came before him, with whom he overlapped, Fernando De Lucia (1860-1925) and Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905).

De Lucia

De Lucia stimulates us to ask important questions, in particular, with regard to music on the cusp of the classical and Romantic periods. He came of age musically around 1880, at the height of the Romantic era, when rubato was used more copiously than before. In his recordings of Il barbiere di Siviglia and La sonnambula so extensive is his rubato that one might think Rossini and Bellini were late-19th-century composers. His recordings, “Son geloso” (Sonnambula), especially, challenge us to decide how literal one should be in construing Bellini’s tempos and rhythms. Did Bellini assume that a singer would use rubato so extensively? Did Bellini intend him to? Is De Lucia simply emphasizing romantic tendencies in Bellini’s music, or is he adding something extraneous? Does his approach benefit the music? Does the music fragment? Is he inspired or wayward? Where are the boundaries? De Lucia’s may have been a forest-for-the-trees romanticism because he emphasized details with insufficient regard to a movement as a whole. Still, no opera tenor since has had as much musical imagination. Alessandro Bonci, no less sensitive to the music, is less extreme in his liberties–as is a somewhat later tenor, Dino Borgioli.

De Lucia, a 19th-century holdover, varied dynamics and tone color as well as rhythm and, sometimes, notes. Most singers since at best have had or have created one sonority of individual character, at one dynamic level.

De Lucia’s sound was detested by critics in the U.K. and the U.S. because of his “thin, white tones” and, above all, his ongoing fast vibrato–which they called a tremolo. Italians found this sort of vibrato emotive, while British Henry Chorley fulminated against it, calling it “that vice of young Italy, bad schooling, and false notions of effect.” Almost without exception, Italian tenors from Giovanni Battista Rubini to Pertile had such a vibrato. Roberto Stagno, Italo Campanini and Ernesto Nicolini were among those excoriated for it by Anglo-Saxon critics. (Warning: most De Lucia CDs are off pitch because their producers subscribed to the far-fetched notion that his records and only his records should be played back not at speeds in the vicinity of 78 rpm but at ones in the low 60s.)

One reason Caruso won early acceptance in the U.S. is that he was found refreshing because, comparatively, he had little fast vibrato. Shortly after he came here he began to sing with less vibrato, also to darken his tones and sing full-out most of the time.

Tamagno

Tamagno, reputed to have had the most powerful voice of the day, did not sing at full volume most of the time. Listen to his modulations of dynamics in “Sopra Berta” from Meyerbeer’s Il profeta (Le Prophète). He is emotionally profound, and most of his records reveal a pathos, also a fuoco sacro, that to me are deeply moving. His rhythm and pitch, however, are wayward. Like De Lucia, he sings with a great deal more head resonance than Caruso or Del Monaco or Corelli, which makes it easier for him to shade.

Caruso

Caruso and those who followed him mostly sang at full volume. Compared with his predecessors, such as De Lucia and Tamagno, Caruso has less musical nuance, variety of dynamics and rubato; in short, he has less musical imagination. He also has less control over dynamics. These were the prices he paid for his directness of address.

In Caruso’s native Naples audiences were reared on the sophisticated singing of De Lucia and Angelo Masini. The public gave Caruso’s San Carlo debut, in L’elisir d’amore, December 30, 1901, a mixed reception. Of his Des Grieux, in Manon, there two weeks later, a well-known local critic, Saverio Procida, wrote “A beautiful voice, without a doubt, with notes of sonorous power, of clear timbre and tonal color with an easy extension. It is a beautiful voice in every way, fully equalized and warm throughout its range. But that is not enough. He lacks the charm of an accomplished singer, the elegance of an actor, which come only from study….The voice is too throaty, without sufficient head register. Mezza voce passages are too often sung loudly and without polish. The ear is surprised, taken aback by crude sounds.” Caruso’s reply: “I shall not sing in Naples again. I shall come back only to see my dear mother and eat vermicelli alle vongole.”

The Met’s undiscriminating audience and gigantic auditorium exercised a bad effect on Caruso, causing him to mine his body for maximum resonance. American critics sometimes compared him unfavorably to his predecessors Italo Campanini and, more frequently, Jean de Rezske, who allegedly were more cultivated singers. In general Caruso failed to reach his potential for musical (as opposed to dramatic) expression. His warmth of personality transported audiences. Caruso himself said, “To move the public, it is necessary to feel.” He does indeed have heart but does not have enough art. Exceptions are two recordings made early in his career: “Non più nobile” and “Mattinata.”  Presumably he coached the pieces with the composers, Cilea and Leoncavallo, who are at the piano. (The “Mattinata” is heard on the bonus to The Young Caruso.)

On these records he gives music better proportion and more motoric feeling than De Lucia or Tamagno; Caruso’s rubato is such that he pays back the time he steals and doesn’t lose track of overall structure. On records, apart from these two examples, in general he does not treat rhythm expressively, singing note by note with little musical flow. The musicmaking sounds labored–and so too does the vocalism, sometimes. Had he remained under the tutelage of Leoncavallo or Cilea subsequent singing might have been different. Instead, Caruso’s influence caused it to become more four-square.

Puccini came to the Met in 1906-07, in connection with performances of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. He wrote to a friend, “As regards your god [Caruso] entre nous I make you a present of him–he won’t learn anything, he’s lazy, and he’s too pleased with himself–all the same, his voice is magnificent.” Notice how in his recording of “Che gelida manina” Caruso emphasizes each note, so that the notes aren’t bound into phrases that build to peaks or taper to valleys.

The following also are musically lazy sonority seekers: Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Del Monaco, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Corelli, Pavarotti. For them, vocalization and vocal acting are ends in themselves. Some of them have temperament, however, even fuoco sacro. The attributes of the following include music making: Bonci, Tito Schipa, Borgioli, Cesare Valletti, Giuseppe Anselmi, Aureliano Pertile, Giovanni Martinelli, Gigli. Gigli? Yes, but that’s another subject.

The closest in style to Caruso’s predecessors are Schipa, Borgioli and Valletti; since they are at the lightest end of the tenor spectrum, they largely escaped Caruso’s influence. Otherwise, the most obvious aspect of his singing is what was imitated–the weight and power. Musical nuance tended to fall by the wayside.


In 1951, if you wanted to cast Caruso, what more obvious choice was there than Del Monaco? (Lanza, after all, was not a major opera singer.) As it happens, Del Monaco is the most extreme example of what Caruso had begun. According to Del Monaco’s autobiography, La mia vita e i miei successi, his voice teacher Arturo Melocchi recommended that he not try to sing with nuance or real dynamic modulation. With his lowered-larynx technique he sang for all intents and purposes at only two dynamic levels, forte and fortissimo. (Yes, there are some counterexamples; see Joe Pearce’s coverage of Opera Titans [now out of print], which includes some of the material on this tape.)

In The Young Caruso, MDM is so baritonal that his free-and-easy top surprises–which was certainly the case with Caruso at his best. The film is unhistorical, but it charms.

For a discussion of the ways in which Del Monaco influenced singing see the booklet to Corelli in Concert (now out of print).