Enrico Caruso (1873 - 1921)
A Brief Appreciation

 


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ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

-- Geoffrey Riggs

 

The ideal is to take vintage-condition originals and play them straightforwardly on state-of-the-art equipment, and then use the finest equipment to transfer the sound of _that_ on to the finished product. A few labels honestly seek to do that. It's very time-intensive. Right now, Ward Marston is finishing up quite a stunning job of precisely that kind of Caruso restoration for the NAXOS label. No attempt is made to make these old records sound digital. Rather, the sonic essentials that the old process captured are being reproduced with the utmost care. It does not sound like a modern recording. But it does reproduce, with as much accuracy as possible, as much of the sound of Caruso's voice as was honestly caught on the old '78s -- and there is more to that than one might expect. I doubt there is any other Caruso transfer that has been quite as direct and untampered with in this respect.

My own odyssey has traced quite a change in attitude. When I first heard some pretty inferior Caruso transfers, I gravitated to the later records (his discography goes from 1902 to 1920) because the voice becomes a bold, rotund sound by that time and, at first, I found the openness and apparently deep support of the tones far preferable. The earliest records, from the '00s, seemed a trifle bleaty, even unsupported, by comparison.

When I started hearing Marston's first CD transfers (for the PEARL label), that started to change. I found a sweetness, a relaxed, flowing quality to the earliest records that was exhilarating, with a welcome "unmuscled" tone that had been sadly attenuated in the previous transfers (the only originals I had ever heard had come from his later period, the "Deh, ch'io ritorni" and so on). This was an eye-opener. Further listening to the new NAXOS remake (the transfers here are all new, reflecting a lifetime of listening and rediscovery -- an art all its own) has now made me an unequivocal admirer of Caruso's singing from 1904 - 1908, so much so that I now prefer this period to the later years, by and large!

There are exceptions. The final records have an undeniably greater richness of tone and feeling, but the easy suavity and long line of 1904-1908, and the greater dynamic variety and suppleness heard in those earlier years, is simply staggering, unparallelled in the later phase.

That said, in 1911 and 1912, some of the earlier suavity and suppleness is coupled with much of the richness of tone of the final phase. An argument could be made for this being, in fact, his peak. But since there continue to be gems right up to the end of his recorded output (even a few miracles of flexibility, like the "Mia piccirella" and the "Ombra mai fu", with its immacculate trill, from his last years!), I wouldn't be without the whole series.

As to whether he is the greatest, well (and I'm in a bit of a minority here), his occasional habit toward the end of his career of almost slamming into certain notes (and remember, he was still under fifty when he died, so we're hardly talking about someone over the hill here!) can sometimes be unsettling -- for me -- and for that reason, I might turn to one or two other tenors _if_ I were to risk naming any single tenor as _the_ greatest at all (a tricky exercise). At the same time, Caruso at the end will occasionally use the somewhat more effortful style he has developed to profound expressive effect. Almost as if he is aware of the pitfalls involved, he is careful enough as an artist to integrate this (unavoidable?) necessity into a credible communicative design, where -- in context -- it does not seem like a flaw.

That is genius -- and also instinct.

Because ultimately, the greatness of Caruso lies in the way he always seems in close touch with his innermost being, his instinctive being, no matter what he sings. It's as if he never allows himself to sing anything that hasn't touched him in the closest possible way. Many a listener has perhaps felt that, and maybe that's why so many listeners continue to fall under his spell year after year.

Ironically, in my own case, while it was superior transfers that enabled me to fall under the spell of his earliest records, it was those same wonderful transfers that made me more aware than I had been of the slight effortfulness in his last '78s. At one time, it somehow seemed self-evident to me that Caruso eventually became a flawless singer over time, but now, superior transfers reveal him as having become a flawed, though affectingly human, one instead.

 

--Geoffrey Riggs

 

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THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

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