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a boxed set Superbudget

Enrico CARUSO (tenor) (1873-1920)
A Life in Words and Music

Written and Narrated by David Timson
CD 1

King of Tenors: Enrico Caruso
Family background
Early singing lessons
Caruso's first operatic roles
More auditions and Enrico meets Puccini
Caruso meets Ada Giachetti
Enrico and Ada
1898: St Petersburg
The 'monarch-in-waiting'
December 1900: debut at La Scala
CD 2

Humiliation in Naples
1900: Gaisberg records Caruso
1902: Covent Garden debut with Nelly Melba
1903: Caruso joins the New York Metropolitan Opera
The 'King' is crowned
1904-6: international touring
An earthquake and a brush with the press
1906: La Boheme at the Met.
CD 3
Caruso's health
1908: family upsets
Family and health problems
The 1909-10 season at the Met.
Mafia interest and a recording contract
Ill health 1912-13: back at the Met.
1913-14: Covent Garden, Tosca and Aida
The war years
Fund-raising concerts
CD 4
Caruso's daily routine
Caruso's private life
1918-20: marriage to Dorothy Park Benjamin
Dorothy in Italy; Caruso on tour
1920: Cuba
1920-21: injury and worsening health
Goodbye to the Met. - Caruso retires to Naples
The death of Caruso
Illustrated by 30 original recordings of songs and arias recorded between 1902 and 1920 and taken from Volumes 1-12 of the Naxos’ Caruso: The Complete Recordings series
Bargain Price
NAXOS. 8.558131-34 [4CDs: 59.57+58.55+64.21+62.32]

Regular browsers of this site will have noted my enthusiasm for Naxos’s series of ‘Introductions’ to various operas written by Thomson Smillie and narrated by David Timson. In this 4CD set David Timson is his own author and researcher and a fine and interesting job he makes of it. The story opens (CD 1 tr. 1) rather unusually by briefly recounting the grand party Caruso and his wife gave on New Year’s Day 1919 to mark his Silver Jubilee. The life story proper follows (tr. 3) with a full background to the singer’s early life and family, particularly his relationship with his mother, and conditions in Naples in his childhood. Caruso’s first singing lessons, and early operatic efforts are covered (trs. 5 and 7), and also his brief ‘call up’ to military service, which was served by his brother instead! This latter arrangement enabled Caruso to make his operatic debut at the ‘Teatro Nuovo’ in his home town of Naples on March 15th 1895 in the first production of an opera long forgotten. However, contacts had been made and the singer filled in as Faust at the more important ‘Teatro Bellini’ in the city he was on his way. By age 22 Caruso was able to earn his living by singing and debuts followed elsewhere. Of course no recordings exist from this early stage in the singer’s career and the narrative is interspersed with arias from later recordings chosen to relate to his roles in the theatre at the time. CD 1 continues Caruso’s life to include his setting up home with Ada Giachetti, a dramatic soprano in her own right (trs. 11 and 13) and the mother of his sons. She was much more versed in the ways of operatic life than he and having had proper vocal training was able to pass on lessons in breath control and vocal extension. The tenor’s burgeoning career led to his Milan debut in 1897. The following year his international career began with debuts first in St. Petersburg (tr. 15) followed in 1899 in South America. Caruso’s debut at ‘La Scala’ in ‘L’elisir d’amore’ was widely acclaimed and is illustrated by the famous aria ‘Una furtive lagrima’ (tr. 20) from a recording made in 1911 and featured in Volume 6 of the Naxos series. It is a criticism that although the recording dates are given in the narrative, the information is not given in the track listing which also, erroneously, gives the singer’s debut at ‘La Scala’ as 1990.

CD 2 starts with the so-called Naples disaster when Caruso returned to his hometown’s major theatre. He refused to pay the local ‘claque’ and his performance in ‘L’elisir’, acclaimed at ‘La Scala’, was booed. Caruso swore he would only visit the town in future to visit his family and never sang in Naples again (tr. 1). Track 3 has interesting details of Caruso’s famous first recordings for Fred Gaisberg in April 1902, (again the track listing of 1900 is in error whilst the narrative is correct). The disc continues with his 1902 debut at ‘Covent Garden’ with Nellie Melba, including insights into his propensity for practical jokes (tr. 3), the ‘Met’ (tr. 7) where he was to make over 600 appearances in nearly 40 operas, and his other international touring (tr. 11). There are asides on his ‘amours’, his survival of the San Francisco earthquake and the notorious ‘Monkey House’ scandal when Caruso was accused of harassment of a young woman during a visit to Central Park Zoo. The vocal selections again relate to the singer’s contemporary performances.

CD 3 is much concerned with Caruso’s health when over-singing and an excessive workload necessitated operations to remove nodules from his vocal chords. There were major concerns about his vocal health in the performances that followed the first operation, although these were soon overcome. However, Caruso’s well-being was not helped by the desertion of Ada, his partner of 12 years and mother of his sons, who ran off with their chauffeur (tr. 3). Back to normal health and at the ‘Met’ for the 1909-1910 seasons tracks. 6 and 10 give interesting insights to his popularity and workload at that theatre alone. This perhaps contributed to more nodules; he had to cancel appearances after February. It was 7 months before he could return to the stage when he was beset by more health problems in the shape of severe headaches (tr. 10). Despite these setbacks Caruso was back at the ‘Met’ for the 1912-1913 season singing 10 roles and returning to Covent Garden for the first time for many years (tr. 11), a visit he repeated in 1914, his last at that theatre (tr. 13) influenced by the onset of World War 1. Caruso’s activities during the war period, including visits to South America and fund-raising for the troops, are covered (trs. 15 and 17).

The final disc starts with an extensive narrative of Caruso’s strict daily routine, including his superstitions, smoking and stamp collecting (trs. 1 and 2), before expounding on his unexpected betrothal and marriage to Dorothy Park Benjamin, twenty years his junior, and from a very different social background. His return to Italy, with Dorothy, at the end of the war and the family milieu of ‘pensioners’ that he subsidised there perhaps accounted for the trip to Cuba for the then enormous fee of 15000 US Dollars for each performance (tr. 9). But the end of the good times was in sight with an injury to his chest, from falling scenery, following a bad cold lead to severe pleurisy. Misdiagnosis and his refusal to cancel allowed Caruso to continue for several more performances but his 607th performance at the ‘Met’, on December 24th 1920, was his last on any stage. After operations for the pleurisy he returned to Naples on May 28th supposedly to convalesce. In reality it was to more illness and death on August 2nd 1920 at the age of 48 (tr. 13).

This is a very human-oriented biography and on that basis is informative and enjoyable without being excessively sycophantic, although when dealing with one of the greatest singers of all time it is difficult to avoid superlatives, nor is there excessive salaciousness in respect of Caruso’s philandering. There is also much information that I have not mentioned about fees, repertoire and colleagues. I would have preferred more detailed analysis, with chronological examples from his recordings, of the changes in his vocal timbre following the ‘crisis’ of 1908-1909, and his greater interpretive and expressive powers that were evident, and mentioned in the narrative, in the ‘Met’ seasons during World War 1. The booklet gives the details of the volumes from the Naxos series from which the vocal extracts are taken, so well remastered by Ward Marston, but not, as I have mentioned, the recording dates; a serious omission. This issue is an ideal complement, or even sampler, to the Naxos complete recordings, but is also a worthy issue in its own right and so much more enjoyable than a dry as dust written biography.

Robert J Farr


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