The Caruso “Re-Creations”

Caruso and Victrola

TOSTI: Luna d’estate. Di CAPUA: O sole mio. LEONCAVALLO: Pagliacci: No, Pagliacco non son! VERDI: Rigoletto: Parmi veder le lagrime. La forza del destino: O tu che in seno agl’angeli. Otello: Ora e per sempre addio.  PENNINO: Pecchè? GIORDANO: Andrea Chenier: Un di all’azzuro spazio. Fedora: Amor ti vieta. DONIZETTI: L’Elisir d’amore: Una furtiva lagrima. ROSSINI: Petite Messe Solennelle: Domine deus. HALEVY: La Juive: Rachel, quand du seigneur. MASSENET: Le Cid: O souverain, o juge, o pêre. PUCCINI: Tosca: Recondita armonia. La Bohème: Che gelida manina. HANDEL: Xerxes: Ombra mai fu.+ GOUNOD: La Reine de Saba: Inspirez-moi, race divine.* BIZET: Carmen: Il fior che avevi a me.* GASTALDON: Musica probita / Enrico Caruso, tenor w/Vienna Radio Symphony Orch., cond. Gottfried Rabl except *Victor Orchestra, unknown cond. & +Devon String Orch., cond. Nigel Amherst / available for free streaming on YouTube by clicking titles above

The Victor Talking Machine Company, which had served Enrico Caruso so faithfully and well for 17 years (the real color photo of the tenor above was probably a promotional item created by the company for people who bought a lot of his records; I found it on a YouTube video that had no explanation), had the usual luck that record companies have when a major artist dies in their prime. For about a year after the tenor’s death, they sold a large number of his recordings. But by 1923, times and the market had changed. They could no longer rip off consumers with their cute little “one-sided” Red Seal records, which never was due to the fact (wide rumored even into the 1960s) that they couldn’t cut a record on two sides, but solely due to the fact that they sold Red Seal discs for a higher price than their blue or black label discs, and Caruso’s sold for the highest prices of all, so it was a completely legal yet insidious way of ripping consumers off. Yet, as I say, the market had changed by 1923, and no one was willing to pay double the price of a regular record to get but one song or aria performed by Caruso, so they finally broke down and started reissuing his recordings on two-sided discs. (Yet oddly, these two-sided Caruso 78s never seemed to be as common as the original one-sided ones when I started collecting them around 1967 or ’68.)

By 1932, however, their fortunes as well as those of every other record company had dropped like a rock due to the Depression. At the end of 1930, now owned by RCA, Victor cut the bulk of their Red Seal roster, only keeping a few big name singers that had continued sales appeal: Lawrence Tibbett, John McCormack, Lucrezia Bori and Richard Crooks. Not even Beniamino Gigli made the cut, but he was headed back to Italy anyway because he refused to take a pay cut due to the economic situation. Thus, in 1932, someone at RCA came up with the brilliant idea of re-recording Caruso’s voice with a modern, electrically-recorded orchestra. Surely the novelty of hearing the great tenor in more modern sound would pick up sales. And astonishingly, it worked.

Pearl Fishers labelEven more surprising, however, was the fact that two well-known critics who had heard Caruso in the flesh really liked these recordings because they felt that he had so dwarfed the puny, tinny-sounding orchestras of his day that the records gave an incorrect perspective on how he sounded live. Those critics were Hermann Klein, then writing for the Gramophone in England, and Max de Schauensee. I should also add that Dr. Louis A. Leslie, co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand Method and the man who continued editing new editions of the Gregg manual into the late 1970s, also liked those recordings. Interesting, Dr. Leslie lived long enough to also hear the Stockham Soundstream transfers that came out on LP in the mid-to-late ‘70s, and he liked them too because they brought out the warmth of Caruso’s voice, though he, like me, complained that they diminished the ring of his voice in the upper range.

Then, of course, in the late 1990s something new came along, a method of lifting Caruso’s voice off the old records and completely eradicating any traces of the acoustically-recorded orchestras, then superimposing the tenor over a more modern, digitally-recorded orchestra. By this time, RCA Victor as an independent company was no more; it had been sold to the Bettelman Music Group in Germany, a.k.a. BMG, about seven years earlier, so it was actually BMG that came up with the idea, masquerading as RCA. They hired a young conductor named Gottfried Rabl and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and instructed him to listen very carefully to the old records and match Caruso’s tempi and phrasing—which included a great deal of rubato and rallentando effects no longer considered valid in the musical world—so that they would have a perfect match when they were put together.


Gottfried Rabl (from the artist’s website)

Rabl did his job phenomenally well, so much so that the ensuing CD, Caruso 2000, sold beyond BMG’s wildest dreams. Thus two more albums were released by the same forces, one of Italian songs and another of opera arias. In the latter, Rabl and BMG even reached all the way back to some of Caruso’s earliest recordings, using two of his famous 1902 G&T sides and two recordings he made at his first recording date for Victor in February 1904.

It would be easy to end this story right here and say that although this gimmick might have worked for the peripheral opera lover who may have heard of Caruso but didn’t want to suffer through hours of clunky-sounding orchestras, and leave it at that. But the Caruso 2000 project, like the 1932-39 “re-creations,” is much more complex than that.

As an unnamed online critic opined when the first disc was released, “On most of the tracks, and in spite of anything the RCA engineers could do, Caruso’s voice appears to be in an entirely different acoustic space from the orchestra. Nothing can disguise the dead, hollow, megaphone sound of the old recordings. But if one listens with a willing suspension of disbelief, the music comes off much better than one might expect.” He had a point but, in my humble opinion, not a very valid one, and I shall explain why.

To begin with, the original records themselves were made using a wholly artificial process that was already dated by 1912 but, without anything much better-sounding on the horizon until electrical recording came along 14 years later, continued to exist. The “orchestras” used to back classical singers (as opposed to real symphony orchestras that made acoustic recordings for Victor) were stripped-down bands that used tubas instead of string basses and little horrors called “Stroh violins.” The Stroh violin didn’t even have a resonating chamber like a real violin. They were nothing more than sticks of wood with violin strings on them; they had little acoustic metal horns sticking out of them that “projected” the sound in the general direction of the main recording horn. They also played in the background while the singer (or singers if there were more than one) sang into their own separate recording horns, this even from the beginning singers were “in an entirely different acoustic space from the orchestra.” It just wasn’t as noticeable because, though distant, they were both in the same room at least.

And this, in turn, brings us to another major improvement in the re-creations: the conducting. I have an online friend, an old-school opera lover, who firmly believes that conductors don’t matter as much as the singers in an opera performance. I’ve tried, often unsuccessfully, to convince him that both are equal; you can’t have a great opera performance without good singing, but you also can’t have a great performance with stodgy or indifferent conducting, and God knows that the majority of Caruso records, as well as those of other star singers on the Victor roster, have some of the lumpiest, least energetic conducting I’ve ever heard. The only two conductors who produced genuinely musical results were Walter B. Rogers, a former cornet star with Sousa’s Band, and Josef Pasternack, a well-schooled musician who just didn’t have that extra “something” to make him a first-rank conductor. Rogers in particular spent considerable time trying to “balance” the orchestra so that they produced a somewhat more musical sound on the records than the usual dull, lumpy whining in the background, and the difference is clearly audible.

On all of the Gottfried Rabl recordings and even on some of the 1930s Victor Orchestra recordings, the conducting is far superior, and this often makes a considerable difference in how we hear these old Caruso performances. To name just two, Caruso’s original discs of Ora e per sempre addio from Otello and No, Pagliacco non son from Pagliacci always seemed to me somewhat lackluster, but in the new re-creations Rabl’s conducting has so much more energy and forward momentum that they make these performances sound absolutely terrific.

Caruso & Toscanini 2

Toscanini & Caruso

And finally, perhaps most conclusively, there is the quality of Caruso’s voice in the best of these re-creations. I’ve read and heard many a description of Caruso’s singing in live performances, but the most dead-on accurate description came from, of all people, Arturo Toscanini, who adored the tenor when they performed together at La Scala but had complaints about his musical style after he came to America. Toscanini described the sound that Caruso made as being “like cut diamonds,” and you really only get this impression occasionally when listening to the original recordings as transferred to LP or CD…but you DO hear this “cut diamond” effect when listening to the original 78s when played on an original wind-up Victrola. Why is this? Quite simply, because these two technologies were made for each other…literally. The same process used in cutting the recording onto the wax master was very carefully engineered (though you may not believe it) to reproduce the same sound when the finished record was played on Victor’s equipment. I know, because I owned a wind-up Victrola at one point and played some Caruso recordings on it, and they sounded entirely more lifelike than the LP transfers…particularly the 1909 recording of Bianca al par from Gli Ugonotti, a recording which Hermann Klein likened in phrasing and interpretation to none other than Jean de Reszke. Because the isolated voice of Caruso is devoid of the background hiss and the lumpy accompaniment of the original “orchestra,” this “cut diamond” effect is to be heard more clearly. As I said, there were some bad results in the large group of re-creations that Rabl made, but these often had to do with the poor quality of the originals. Very often, atmospheric conditions, the warmth of the room during recording and the malleability of the wax master had a lot to do with whether or not Caruso’s voice (or those of other singers) came out sounding warm and full or hard and shrill, and even making second or third takes didn’t improve matters any.

This brings us to the greatest mystery of all, which is how Caruso developed such a phenomenal instrument in the first place. Although he studied with a well-known voice teach in Naples, Vincenzo Lombardi, other Lombardi pupils sounded absolutely nothing like him. Among those was Caruso’s close friend at the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Antonio Scotti, and Scotti had a dull, grey-sounding voice with little resonance and no great tonal allure—just the opposite of Caruso. Some of the answer to this question, however, was answered in a book published by one of Caruso’s regular accompanists, Salvatore Fucito, the year after Caruso’s death (Caruso and the Art of Singing, Frederick A. Stokes Co., N.Y., 1922). Fucito explained it thus:

Caruso, like every true artist, felt intensely. But it was the consummate art with which he expressed his deep feeling that enabled him to stir his hearers as few singers have ever done. For back of the deep feeling there was deep reflection; his mind was always in full control of his emotions. Even musicians often overlooked the great role Caruso’s mind played in the development and perfecting of his art, although the fact is that his marvelous voice itself was to a great extent the product of ceaseless and untiring observation and analysis, as well as of constant search for means of improving his mastery of the organs with which nature had endowed him…

It cannot be doubted, of course, that Caruso had been provided by nature with a remarkable vocal instrument and with a powerful pair of bellows; nevertheless we know from our long association with the great artist—and Caruso himself often expressed his own conviction of the fact—that it was his genius for work which made the utmost of his endowment both as regards the physical organs and those native emotional and mental resources upon which his final artistry drew so heavily. Work does not mean unguided labor: nothing could be more ruinous to the vocal organism. To the genuine artist work can only mean intelligent direction, painstaking study, and infinite patience. These are the quintessential elements in any enduring success.

From the physiological point of view, the larynx, the pharynx, the mouth chamber, the nasal passages, together with the trachea (windpipe) and lungs, form the organs of respiration, and at the same time are called upon for the production and perfect rendering of tones, thus constituting the vocal organs. This machinery is to be found in every human body, with a conformation more or less favorable to the production of tone; but into Caruso’s body nature had marvelously introduced an amazingly equal perfection of each of the vocal organs, with the result that no human voice has been able to produce tones of greater richness and poignancy. The diameter of Caruso’s larynx as a vocal organ accorded so precisely with the diameter required for its functioning as an organ of respiration that, while its singing function admirably served the upper ranges of his voice, the breathing function bestowed upon him those ample, rich, and powerful tones. The lateral amplitude of his larynx, by permitting a maximum dilation of the glottis, accounted for extraordinary respiratory powers.

On the other hand, had Caruso failed to use these marvelous organs correctly, intelligently, we can say unhesitatingly that he would have gone the way of many another obscure singer of strong physique blessed with a remarkable instrument—after a brief period in the limelight, a sudden banishment to the land of disappointed tenors. A telling point to recall in this connection is that among the students of the Scuola Vergine—where Caruso received his first serious vocal training—he  was known as il tenore vento (the windy tenor), a .name that hardly suggests richness of tone production or grandeur of style. On the contrary it suggests that Caruso’s greatness was due as much to his correct and intelligent use of his vocal organs as to the actual possession of them.

Because Enrico Caruso knew that the breath is the motive power of the voice, for it is the action of the breath upon the vocal organs which brings about the production of tone—and, therefore, pitch and musical phrasing as well as tone production fundamentally depend on the breath—he devoted a great deal of study and thought to this the groundwork of his art. It must not be thought, however, that he speculated about and labored over fantastic theories which promised overnight phenomenal results. Caruso believed in the gospel of work—not mere labor, but intelligent work—the mainspring of enduring achievement; and he severely condemned meretricious nostrums that purport to lead to rapid success. He knew full well what effort and thought it had cost him, what unsparing pains and patience, to master completely the control of his breath, without which all his other great gifts or attainments would have been of no avail.

Caruso, without any stiffness, would place his body in an erect position, with one foot a bit in advance of the other, as if to take a step. (It is important to note here that his entire body was completely relaxed—no portion of it rigid.) Then he would slightly contract (draw in) the muscles of the abdomen and inhale calmly and without haste. As a result of this deep and slow inspiration of air, his diaphragm and ribs would expand and his thorax (chest) rise. At this point of the demonstration Caruso always called the student’s attention especially to the diaphragm, explaining that when it assumed this position it constituted the principal agent for sustaining the column of air which could be held in the lungs under the pressure required for the production of loud or soft tones (ibid, pp. 109-117).

Fucito’s book was discredited by many critics as an over simplification of Caruso’s singing method, but if you are a singer you will completely understand what he is saying. Caruso was smart enough to coordinate what nature had provided him in such a way that he sang with his whole body, from the waist up to the head, as if it were a single machine, the same way an organ uses all of its bellows and pipes in a single coordinated effort to produce sound. This explains the organ-like resonance of his voice, how he was able to maintain it over a 25-year professional career, and also why it eventually cost him his life.

Caruso had but two vices, sex and smoking. The former probably did him little harm, but we don’t know for sure. The latter surely contributed to the deterioration of his health and eventual death. He smoked two packs a day of strong Turkish cigarettes, which he put in a holder; somehow he felt that smoking a cigarette in a holder helped to mitigate the destructive tar and nicotine he was putting into his system. He was also a notorious workaholic, singing at the Met two to three days a week, almost throughout the entire season. All of these things, plus the enormous effort he put into controlling the complex interaction of his singing equipment, led to problems long before his eventual collapse. Toscanini described a 1910 performance of La Gioconda where the tenor was complaining of soreness in his throat before going on. His doctor came to examine him; Toscanini was in the room, and by his description Caruso’s throat looked red and raw, “like chopped liver.” He said to the tenor, “Enrico, you can’t sing like this,” to which Caruso said to his doctor, “Just put some iodine on it and I’ll be all right.” The doctor did so, and a half hour later Caruso made his entrance, singing so magnificently that Toscanini was left speechless. But none of this could have done him any good.

By the late 1910s, the tenor was also suffering from migraine headaches brought on by high blood pressure, but his idiot of a doctor merely recommended that he place an early version of a TENS unit around his head to help the headaches. This was like pouring gasoline onto a fire. He might just as well have placed a pyramid on his head to focus the sun’s energy and bake his brain.

But to return to the main topic of this article, please do check out the recordings I’ve listed in the header. I think they will convince you that the re-creation experiments are not at all as bad as the purists make them out to be.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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