Featured CD Review: Enrico Caruso, A Life in Words and Music
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The Opera Quarterly 20.3 (2004) 354-356



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Feature CD Review

Enrico Caruso, A Life in Words and Music

Enrico Caruso (1873-1921).
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Figure 1
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921).
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Script written and narrated by David Timson Includes over thirty original recordings from 1902 to 1920 Excerpts from Aida, Un ballo in maschera, La bohème, Carmen, Cavalleria rusticana, L'elisir d'amore, Fedora, La forza del destino, Germania, La Gioconda, La Juive, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Otello, Pagliacci, Rigoletto, Samson et Dalila, Il trovatore Songs by Cordiferro-Cardillo, Cottrau, De Crescenzo, O'Hara, Rossini Assisting singers: Francesco Daddi, Geraldine Farrar, Marcel Journet, Nellie Melba, Titta Ruffo, Antonio Scotti, Marcella Sembrich, Gina Severina, Gina Viafora Naxos Historical 8.558131-34 (4 CDs)

This anthology, released in 2003 (the centennial of Caruso's Met debut), is a publishing ploy designed to eduacate new collectors and create an appetite for more Caruso recordings, which Naxos has made handily available elsewhere, in a twelve-volume set with sound admirably restored by Ward Marston. The tie-in between this new release and Naxos's complete edition is carried to the point that the "complete" set, rather than the original catalog and matrix number, is cited as the source for each of the recordings in the anthology under review.

Musical excerpts are separated by one, or sometimes two, narrative accounts of Caruso's life and career. On three of the four CDs the narration takes up half the total time of the disc; the author of the commentary, David Timson, delivers it in his well-modulated British voice.

The comments follow a chronological pattern. The first disc opens with a spoken introduction to the "King of Tenors," followed immediately by "Di quella pira" and a spoken account of the singer's triumph at La Scala in L'elisir d'amore on 17 February 1901 (illustrated by his 1911 "Una furtiva lagrima"). The second disc carries him through 1906; the third through the World War I years; and the fourth concludes with his death, followed somewhat incongruously by the 1908 version of "La donna è mobile"—an unnecessary addition inasmuch as the second disc contains his 1904 recording of this aria. [End Page 355]

All in all, this set betrays many signs of being rather carelessly conceived and produced. The accompanying booklet contains a few major bloopers. For instance, it exercises the eyebrows to learn that Caruso's Scala debut took place in "December 1990" and that his first visit to a recording studio was in 1900 (instead of 11 April 1902). It is even more unsettling to read that "the high soprano of Geraldine Farrar [is] heard [here] in a duet from La Bohème," when the version of "O soave fanciulla" included on the third disc is not the 1912 recording with La Geraldina but that of 1907 with Melba. To make matters worse, the writer goes on to add that in this duet Farrar's voice "sounds thin and poorly produced."

Some of the spoken passages on this set are not only trite but in poor taste. For example, there are too many snide references to the "monkey house incident" of 1906. The gratuitous mention of women with whom Caruso may have had affairs (Billie Burke, for example) adds nothing to our appreciation of the great tenor's voice and art. This suggestive approach may account for why the anthology ends with a second "La donna è mobile." (It also happens to include an unnecessary repetition of "Di quella pira," the first music heard on disc 1 and again on disc 3.)

The Caruso heritage consists of over two hundred recordings. Some fine ones are included in this anthology. The one example of his singing in English we are given here is O'Hara's "Your eyes have told me what I did not know"—hardly the inevitable choice but explainable if the subtext is meant to illustrate what a great roué the tenor was. Surely, however, his reputation does not have to rest...