People come to opera in many different ways. One common way is to become enthralled by a particular contemporary singer or voice type, which in many cases leads to a larger appreciation of the art form itself. Part of this process often involves not only extensive reading, but also conversations with older aficionados, then to an exploration of great recordings of the past. This exploration is most enlightening and results in appreciations and understanding which are very enriching experiences.
Going through this process has happily led many of us to seek out recordings of the greatest Italian tenor of the 20th century, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), the man Caruso authority Francis Robinson called “the greatest singer of his time, perhaps of all time”. Caruso’s recorded voice brought Mr. Robinson to opera when he was 10 years old. As Caruso died the following year, Mr. Robinson had to live his life without ever hearing him in the flesh, though he was consoled by his close relationships with many of Caruso’s former colleagues and close friends, as well as the tenor’s widow. The Ear’s birth came many years after Caruso’s death, but there was again consolation. In my youth, I was fortunate to know several people who had often heard him, as well as Rosa Ponselle, one of the most celebrated of Caruso’s colleagues. When asked if Caruso had really been the best singer these people had ever heard, the response was invariably the same: an emphatic affirmative.
After his Met debut in 1903, Caruso recorded exclusively for Victor (later known as RCA Victor).[i] Caruso helped establish the gramophone, as in turn, it helped to quickly establish him with a large international public who did not have the opportunity to hear him live. Few were the households with a gramophone whose records did not include some Caruso titles. Caruso became the first best-selling record artist and a household name around the world.
Problems arise when many modern listeners first encounter recordings of that incomparable voice and the deep humanity and heart which go with it. Accustomed to modern recording techniques and C.D.s, such listeners find themselves unable to focus on Caruso through the distortions and surface noise inherent in the pre-electrical, or acoustic, recording process, not to mention the necessarily small “orchestra” trying vainly to get their share of the primitive recording horn into which he was singing. Most of those I have introduced to C.D. versions of Caruso’s ’78’s have quickly given up, saying that the old records are unlistenable and that they will have to continue to imagine his supremacy, while still doubting it. Those who persevere will find their lives forever enriched, for it is quite certain that there has never been another Caruso, nor is there likely to be, a fact regretfully realized by most great tenors since.
The acoustic process was the only recording method possible from the late 19th Century beginnings of the gramophone to 1925, when the invention of the microphone finally allowed the new electrical process to record a full orchestra with acceptable results, as well as more fully conveying the vocal qualities of singers. The introduction of magnetic tape in 1948 gave us high fidelity mono recordings, greatly improving the sound quality, further enhanced by the introduction of stereo a few years later. When digital recording replaced tape, the evolution in sound recording again reached a new level. Caruso’s final recordings were made in 1920, when the primitive acoustic method was the only available way to record.
It is difficult for most modern listeners to concentrate on Caruso’s voice through the extreme limitations of the recording technology available to him. The only good news here is that the limited frequency range of the acoustic process best served the tenor voice, whose range fell comfortably within the limits of its possibilities. Higher and lower voices lost many more frequencies than tenors by these limitations. Caruso came through best of all, due to his unique resonance, combined with a canny awareness of how to move into the horn for soft notes and back for forte sounds. Nonetheless, countless potential admirers have given up quickly due to the aforementioned problems of the process.
The first attempt to remedy this came in the 1930’s, when most of the surface noise was eliminated along with the tinny sound of the small number of instrumentalists accompanying Caruso. The result of this tinkering was coordinated with an electrically recorded orchestra. This proved less than successful, as the “coordination” was rarely exact and much of Caruso’s voice disappeared along with the noise. Only at the very end of the 20th century did it become possible to find a successful way to bring Caruso to listeners who otherwise would never bother.
In 1999, the problems of the ’30’s attempts to make Caruso’s recordings more palatable to modern ears were resolved in an astonishing way. Modern digital technology had finally made it possible to do something that could never have been dreamed of, let alone accomplished, before: to isolate Caruso’s voice on a hard disc minus the almost comical “orchestral” sound, the surface noise on the matrices and shellac discs and the inconsistency of the 78 R.P.M. speed of the original recordings. 78 R.P.M. was always approximate in the recording process and could vary further on home equipment, due to the intrinsic problems of the home gramophones. Hand cranking made the turntable revolve. If the cranking were insufficient, the pitch could lower as the turntable slowed down. While this posed no problems with more modern playback technology, mechanical problems with the old recording process often produced speed variations in the recordings themselves, resulting in moments where the pitch might rise or fall. Rare were the old 78’s which were actually consistently recorded at exactly 78 revolutions per minute. The recording speed was usually either too slow, too fast and most often simply variable.
Careful monitoring and corrections of variable pitch were always a necessity when transfers were made first to L.P.(and not always done) and later, C.D. All this was successfully dealt with in BMG’s revolutionary process. The result was a hard disc with nothing but Caruso’s voice, always at correct pitch and minus the 78 surface noise, plus occasional echoes of the original accompaniments. The complete removal of the latter would also have resulted in removing some of the tenor’s voice, due to coincidences of frequencies between voice and accompaniment.
The solution to this relatively minor problem came when a new orchestra recording was mixed with the voice, effectively covering the remnants of those anonymous original players. To achieve the mixing of the hard disc with a newly digitally recorded orchestra was the biggest problem of all. On the three C.D.’s which have been released, five people are credited on the supervisory and technical side, though other technicians were also involved. These people have done their work most expertly in what was clearly a labor of love of which the entire team, as well as conductor Gottfried Rabl and the fine members of the Vienna RSO are justly proud. The process of recording the orchestral accompaniment for a dead singer whose performances were unalterable was unique, as well as most aptly solved.
Once the hard disc was available, the conductor and the orchestra members had to rehearse exhaustively while listening to the voice on earphones, practicing until the coordination between voice and orchestra was complete, then record the orchestra with the earphones still in place. The slightest error would necessitate doing it again, as Caruso’s interpretations were non-negotiable. This was complicated by the creativity of Caruso’s singing. If he had sung like a metronome, the process would have proved far easier, but then he wouldn’t have been Caruso, who sang nothing like a metronome. Modern singers are often tightly controlled by inflexible conductors, though some of today’s best opera conductors and singers can still collaborate in a less strait-jacketed manner. Among various conductors of current or recent times who have allowed singers some creative leeway within reasonable bounds are the late Claudio Abbado and the Met’s James Levine. This does not mean playing fast and loose with the score, but involves something called rubato, or “robbed time”, at which Caruso was a master.
Rubato involves the singer beginning and ending the bars of music with the orchestra while slightly altering some of the note values within them, compensating for slightly extended notes with others of shorter duration than the notation. This requires real sensitivity and creativity from the singer, combined with a conductor with the flexibility to cooperate. As long as the collaborators are in sync, the results can bring the music to life in a more interesting way than a literal reading of each note. Such an approach is increasingly rare in today’s opera houses, and fine musicianship, interpretative insight and taste are needed from the singer, while the cooperation of the conductor is an essential element if chaos is not to result. Yes, it’s easier to work like metronomes, while the opposite approach depends on qualities not often present in many of today’s singers, nor tolerated by many conductors. The musical results are much more interesting if rubato is tastefully and sensitively employed, but in most opera performances today it is a thing of the past, which brings brings us back to Caruso.
Given the creativity of Caruso’s singing, it was necessary for him to actually serve as the conductor’s conductor for this project. Rabl did a wonderful job with the excellent orchestra, but the singer had to be in charge. Compromise with the tenor was obviously impossible so many years after his untimely death. Tenors are usually hard enough to negotiate with when alive, particularly the Italians. In life, Caruso was an exception. In fact, when his value to the Met became clear, he was long their highest paid singer. But when the time came to renegotiate his contract, General Manager Giulio Gatti Casazza left the amount per performance blank, telling Caruso to write in whatever figure he wished. He wrote the same amount he had been receiving, saying that he was already giving 100% to his public and a raise in his salary would create the impression that he must give still more. Since that was clearly not possible, a raise was unacceptable to him. All he asked for was a first class round trip for his annual sea voyages between New York and Italy instead of the second class cabin he had previously accepted. While this may appear a needless digression, it is a fine example of the goodness and generosity of this sweetest of men, beloved for much more than his unique voice. This aspect of Caruso, along with his deep humanity and heart, were essential ingredients of his being and his art and come vividly alive on the records.
The painstaking technical and musical process finally produced the C.D. Caruso 2000, collecting 15 arias and a Neapolitan song “encore”, followed by a comparison track of Caruso’s most famous record, “Vesti la giubba”, from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, probably the most successful of the selections.[ii]
The critical response and sales figures encouraged the team to offer two sequels, Italian Songs and Amor Ti Vieta, the latter devoted again to opera arias. These were also successful, though BMG later announced that there would be no more. This was due to the fact that many of Caruso’s recordings were of inferior music and many selections were recorded more than once, while some were not technically adequate to yield results up to the series’ established standards and many were with other singers.
The inclusion of other voices would not have produced optimum results, as their voices originally couldn’t be recorded with a comparable degree of fidelity to the actual sound they produced live. Caruso’s voice was uniquely “phonogenic” in an era when so few others had Caruso’s good fortune to have a voice which responded so well to the old process.
What we do have is these three C.D.’s, which finally make Caruso accessible to those many who were unable to enjoy listening to him before. There the great voice is, noise and distortion free and accompanied by an orchestra of real quality. Those many listeners who could not tolerate the disadvantages of the originals, as well as the many who have never heard him at all, can now sit back and comfortably experience a tenor who is without parallel in the history of both sound recording and live performance, while those millions who have always been willing to listen through anything to hear the voice and art of this paragon of tenors can rejoice anew and in a very different way.
Anyone who has read this far should not delay in checking the Amazon website and buying the first issue, Caruso 2000. The arias from Rigoletto,[iii] Macbeth, Il Trovatore, L’Africaine, Manon, Le Cid, Pagliacci and Tosca are especially recommended. In these particular selections, you will hear a tenor the likes of whom you will never hear again. If you become addicted, the other two C.D.’s belong in your collection as well.
C.D.’s already seem almost a thing of the past for many, but for various reasons, they are the best medium for these particular recordings, not least for the interesting and informative booklets, which give additional information for those who care to know more about the technological details and about the entire project in general. The current price of the C.D.’s compared to 99-cent individual downloads is another advantage. Caruso’s performances in the selections recommended for your first consideration are unmatched, particularly the clown’s lament from Pagliacci. Canio’s heartbreak has never been so vividly brought before us and the singing is on a level which could never be equaled.
Aside from the almost unbearable intensity of that particular recording, much the same could be said about the other recommended selections. You will also find much to enjoy in the others, though some may find the listening a bit uncomfortable in two of the arias, both recorded in the final recording sessions of Caruso’s life, when he had begun to show symptoms of the health problem which would soon end his life, the La Juive and Petite Messe Solennelle pieces. Yes, here there are harder tones and what sounds like labored breathing, though so much is still magnificent. The evolution of Caruso’s voice and singing style will have its place in a future series of articles on great tenors. For now, many of you are about to have a listening experience you will never forget.
Note: If any readers are motivated to hear some of Caruso’s originals after experiencing Caruso 2000, the Nimbus Prima Voce C.D,’s are particularly recommended, as they are by far the best of the transfers of the originals available. If you are interested in pursuing this, Caruso In Ensemble is a fine place to begin, both for the superb selection of material and for the fact that there are no duplications with the digital Caruso series, as other singers, most quite wonderful, are also involved. As for the comparison track previously referred to, the example selected seems intended to tilt things a bit too far against the quality of the originals. Clearly, a worn 78 was used. By using a new transfer method superior to anything previously employed and with the use of mint condition originals, far better results were achieved by Nimbus, as can be heard in their first C.D. of Caruso arias, in which the famous Pagliacci aria is of course included.
[i] … and then as RCA, and now BMG, though the RCA name still appears on BMG’s re-releases of recordings of the past.
[ii] See conclusion
[iii] Excepting the final note of “La donna e mobile”, which for some reason displays an odd sound shared by neither the original recording nor the rest of this redone version.