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Opera, by its very nature, arouses intense reactions. Likes and dislikes tend to be extreme and partisan, and when opera lovers discuss the relative merits of their favorite singers unanimity is rare. In the first two decades of this century, however, there was one point over which few people disagreed. Amongst those who heard him, those who wrote about him and (to my mind the most significant indication of all) those who sang with him,
Caruso was considered quite simply incomparable.
Born on February 27th (or possibly 25th) 1873 into extreme poverty, he grew up as a typical Neapolitan slum child, but by the time he died in the same city at the age of only 48 he had achieved such fame and honor throughout the world that the King of Italy gave orders for the Basilica di San Francesco di Paola, normally reserved for royal occasions, to be used for the funeral service.
It can perhaps be taken as one indication of Caruso’s vocal supremacy, that when he came in 1910 with the company of the Metropolitan Opera, New York – a company whose roster read like a list of Who’s Who in Opera – for a brief season in Paris, anyone wanting to book for a Caruso evening was obliged to do so for a non-Caruso evening as well. One might suppose that such pre-eminence would have made Caruso an object of envy within his profession, but that was not the case, and whenever he is referred to in colleagues’ memoirs it is with unstinting admiration and affection. John McCormack described how, on hearing Caruso’s opening phrase in La Bohème, ‘my jaw dropped, as though hung on a hinge.’ Geraldine Farrar recalled that when she first met Caruso at a rehearsal she found herself confronted by ‘an apparition in screaming checks,’ but that when he opened his mouth to sing full voice in the performance she was so mesmerised that she missed her next few cues. His sartorial extravagance was taken in hand by his elegant baritone friend Antonio Scotti, who introduced Caruso to his London tailor while they were at Covent Garden; and a delightful vignette of the great tenor at that time is to be found in the memoirs of Percy Pitt, Covent Garden’s head conductor. ‘He was not only a very reliable artist,’ Pitt wrote, ‘but a delightful creature to have about the place, larking around and
playing practical jokes.’ It was the tradition that the principal singers should meet for gargantuan lunches at a restaurant called Guffanti’s and, as Pitt continues, ‘Caruso was always the life and soul of these gatherings. When he ceased to come to Covent Garden with such regularity the meetings were gradually dropped; without him there seemed no
reason for their existence.’
Despite the exuberant jocularity of his early days Caruso was always a dedicated and conscientious professional. That formidable figure Otto Klemperer once wrote of him ‘In 1910 he visited Hamburg as a guest artist, where I had the honor of conducting his three performances. It was a very real pleasure, for Caruso was an exceedingly musical singer, who adapted himself perfectly to the ensemble, without showing a trace of soloist’s temperament.’ Certainly Caruso’s many ensemble recordings, of which this disc offers such a splendid selection, fully bear this out. Whether called upon to match the ravishing soft high tones of Johanna Gadski in Aida, or the vicious fury of Pasquale Amato in Forza, Caruso invariably uses the extraordinary range of color at his disposal to blend his voice with his partners rather than to prove his own vocal supremacy. Not a self- effacing singer, but a generous one.

In other senses, too, Caruso’s generosity was legendary. At Christmas a truck would draw up at the stage door of the Met bearing a present for every single employee in the house, and at his death it was found that over 120 people were on his list for regular financial assistance. Perhaps the most touching tribute to Caruso’s human qualities is to be found in
the memoirs of his successor as the world’s favorite Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. Referring to his own good fortune in coming from a friendly rural community, Gigli wrote ‘I wonder what would have become of me if, like him, I had been born in a city slum; for I did not have the gifts of personality that enabled Caruso to create life and warmth around him wherever he went.’ High praise indeed from a colleague who had had
to spend his own early days in the great man’s shadow; but even today, so long after Caruso’s recordings were made, the personality, the life and the warmth still leap with extraordinary immediacy from every phrase that he sings.