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Enrico Caruso – A life in words and music
Enrico Caruso (tenor)
Written and Narrated by David Timson
NAXOS 8.558131-34 [4 CDs: 59.57+58.55+64.21+62.32]

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Di quella pira from Il Trovatore

Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 - 1945) Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana
Teodoro COTTRAU (1827 - 1879) Fenesta che lucive

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924) Che gelida manina from La Boheme
Umberto GIORDANO (1867 - 1948) Amor ti vieta from Fedora
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Celeste Aida from Aida
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924 ) E lucevan le stelle from Tosca
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 - 1848) Una furtive lagrima from L’elisir d’amore
Alberto FRANCHETTI (1860 - 1942) Studenti, udite from Germania
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Questa o quella from Rigoletto
Vincenzo De CRESCENZO (1875 - 1964) Tarantella sincera

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) La donna e mobile from Rigoletto
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 - 1848) Chi mi frena in tal momento? from Lucia di Lammermoor
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Di quella pira from Il Trovatore
Georges BIZET (1838 - 1875) La fleur que tu m’avais jetée from Carmen
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924) Addio, dolce scegliare all mattina from La Bohème
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924) Non ve l’avevo ditto? from Madama Butterfly
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857 - 1919) Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (-) Cielo e mar from La Gioconda
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924) Recondita armonia from Tosca
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924) O soave fancuilla from La Boheme
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Di tu se fedele from Un ballo in maschera
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 - 1921) Vois ma misere from Samson et Dalila
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 - 1868) La danza
Geoffrey O’HARA (1882 - 1967) You eyes have told me what I did not know

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Solenne in quest’ora from La forza del festino
Jacques Fromental HALÉVY (1799 - 1862) Rachel! Quand du seigneur from La Juive
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Oh mostruosa colpa from Otello
Teodoro COTTRAU (1827 - 1879) Addio a Napoli

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) La donna e mobile from Rigoletto


Enrico Caruso was the first opera singer to have his career defined by the gramophone recording. Unlike many later singers, in Caruso’s case his relationship with the gramophone record was a two-way one – the gramophone companies needed him almost more than he needed them. Caruso would have been a super-star tenor even without the benefit of his recordings. But those recordings helped make a career reach a level almost unheard of previously. The fledgling gramophone industry needed Caruso to help transform their scientific novelty into a genuinely musical mass medium. It was Fred Gaisberg’s genius to recognise that Caruso’s voice was perfect for the medium. Thanks to Gaisberg we have a substantial number of recordings of Caruso captured at his prime.

Naxos have issued these in their complete Caruso edition, which runs to 12 volumes with all the recordings remastered by Ward Marston. This present set seeks to capitalise on the success of the Caruso edition. But there is a significant didactic streak running through Naxos; not only do they issue talking books, but they now have a series of CDs which discuss a particular work in the context of a recording (taken from their back catalogue). This Caruso set is an extension of this; it is part of a new series which seeks to put particular artists into focus. Here, spread over four discs, David Timson narrates the story of Caruso’s life, interspersed with thirty of his recordings. These recordings cover the years from 1902 to 1920, a significant portion of Caruso’s working life.

David Timson has written the text himself and it is accessible and informative, as far as it goes. Though he endeavours to be balanced, the restriction of the time available means that he often rather skates over the surface. To give you some idea of the time restrictions on recording the spoken word, the Naxos talking book of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ runs to three discs, even though the book is significantly abridged; the unabridged ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ runs to nine discs, and it is not a long book. So it is no mean feat to compress Caruso’s life into a series of short bursts spaced between thirty recordings spread over four discs.

Timson is too experienced a person to allow the narrative to degenerate into pure hagiography. Lack of time means lack of depth and the story line can become just a series of (usually triumphant) events. Timson does cover the more unsatisfactory events in Caruso’s career such as the issue of his fees which lead to bad receptions in some countries; his obsession with his health led to him performing when he was not completely fit for fear of letting people know that he was ill; his philandering and the notable court case. But I would have liked more exploration of the man and less in the way of lists of engagements. Timson rather emphasises the Americans’ over-adulation of Caruso and the list of his triumphs can become wearing. But then, I must admit that, this disc is not really addressed to me; it is an introduction to Caruso and his art.

On that level, it works very well. Added resonance is given by the recordings, many recorded at the very time the narrative is discussing though, to fill in gaps, we also listen to some discs out of context. There is something fascinating about hearing of Caruso’s activities in 1904 and then hearing a recording he made at the time - 100 years ago. There are gaps of course. We have no example of his singing of Bellini’s ‘Il Pirata’, the opera he worked on to develop his bel canto style. Instead, we must content ourselves with the lesser ‘Fenesta che lucive’ by Cottrau. There is also no record of his early triumph in Cilea’s ‘L’arlesiana’ but we do have something from Giordano’s ‘Fedora’ (another early triumph). There is, not surprisingly, no record of his one and only brush with Wagner (a ‘Lohengrin’ in South America). More importantly, there was no recording made following the triumphant premiere of Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’ at the Met (Ricordi would not allow a recording in case it affected the sales of the vocal score). As he experimented with heavier roles in his later career, the recorded legacy is again patchy. We do have arias from ‘Samson et Dalila’ and ‘La Juive’, but not from Meyerbeer’s ‘La Prophète’ (rather bathetically, the narrative segues directly from discussing this opera into a recording of Rossini’s ‘La Danza’). And there is just one tantalising excerpt of him as Otello, a role that he was planning when illness forced him to stop singing.

What was a revelation was the amount of contemporary opera that Caruso performed. He created very few roles, but sang in a remarkable number of operas by Puccini and his contemporaries such as Giordano, Cilea, Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Franchetti. It is remarkable how much the operatic landscape has changed.

This is a fascinating, illuminating and well-put-together set. But I am not sure how often I will play it. It is the sort of set to be loaned out and shared, to encourage people to come to know this amazing singer better.

Robert Hugill

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