Enrico Caruso's Worst Recordings

By Charles Arnhold

I have been asked if I could identify Caruso's dozen worst recordings out of the 240 or so issued records. At first, that sounded fun, but the more I thought about it, the more perilous it became. In the first place, I love Caruso's recordings. I have collected them since I was 14, and for decades they have brought such joy that to trash any seems at best mere ingratitude, at worst unspeakable heresy.

Secondly, such ratings can only be opinion, and several recordings I don't like may, for some obscure reason, be another collector's favorites. Take, for example, the Neapolitan song "Tu, ca nun chiagne," which has never appealed to me. An Italian-American friend, who is an advanced collector, insists it is a wonderful recording and the fault is with me because I'm not fluent in Italian. He says that if I were fluent, I would appreciate how great the recording is.

Evidence that my friend is right about "Tu, ca nun chiagne" comes from no less an authority than Giovanni Martinelli. When I was in high school in England, I used to listen to a radio program called "Desert Island Discs." A celebrity selected the eight records he would like were he stranded on a desert island, presumably with a wind-up Victrola and a gazillion needles. When Martinelli was the guest, he chose Caruso's "Tu, ca nun chiagne." I still have a tape of this program. So much for my opinion.

That the bulk of Caruso's recorded legacy has remained hors concours for three quarters of a century is by now indisputable, so please don't stick pins in little wax dummies of me!

It is impossible to attack Caruso's singing as such, but one may disparage the following: 1) records in which Caruso's approach is stylistically wrong; 2) records with technical shortcomings which no one thought worth curing; 3) records of dull music which disappoints in the light of other music he might have recorded instead.

A few of the earliest non-Victor recordings have notable technical flaws and false starts, yet they were issued. That never happened once Caruso started recording exclusively for Victor in February 1904. Caruso had high standards and worked closely with Victor executive Calvin Child to ensure a quality product. When takes of various songs and arias did not meet the tenor's or Child's approval, the masters were destroyed.

Examples of songs recorded but not approved for issue include "The Rosary" and "Dopo." A number of operatic excerpts were never issued: "Quando le sere al placido" from Luisa Miller, "Enzo Grimaldo" from La Gioconda with Ruffo (evidence suggests two copies of this exist; why no dubs?), the Tosca duets with Farrar, and so on. Presumably Caruso or Child had good reasons for not approving them, but what a loss, as they were not re-recorded for issue! Among these non-issues were three records which somehow have had limited circulation: the Carmen duet with Francis Alda, the Trovatore Miserere without chorus (also with Alda), and "O soave fanciulla" from La Boheme with Farrar. The latter was issued by IRCC backed by the 1904 "Mi par d'udir ancora" from The Pearl Fishers. To today's ears, none of these seems so bad as to prevent its being issued. Most collectors who have heard the Trovatore item prefer it to the published version with chorus, and I prefer the Boheme duet to the famous version with Melba. Farrar and Caruso sound like they are singing to each other whereas Melba and Caruso sound like they are singing at the horn.

Again, personal preferences and musical background can sway one's judgment. John Freestone and H.J. Drummond express a typically English outlook when they assess the tenor's recordings in their book Enrico Caruso: His Recorded Legacy (T.S. Denison & Co, 1961). They are generous towards the operatic items and some art songs, but they disparage many of the Neapolitan songs and some titles Caruso recorded obviously for the Latin market. At times the authors' tone is condescending. For example, in their review of "Lolita" (Cat. No. 88120, from 1908), they write on page 45, "I can find little to admire in this very ordinary song. Why Caruso chose to grace it with his voice is difficult to understand. It is like so many more pseudo Spanish songs of the period, complete with castanets, and yet so little like true Spanish music! Caruso sings it with great beauty, fluency and elan, but why?"

Harsh words indeed! That he sings it with "great beauty, fluency and elan" says it all. As it happens, I like the recording as much for its slightly kitsch pseudo-Spanishness, completely in context with its period, as for the beauty of the singing. This record was made at the same March 1908 session as the two great solos from Rigoletto, and Caruso was never in better voice.

As a general rule of thumb, I have asked myself the following question while making these selections: "If someone with a bit of knowledge of singing and repertoire were to hear this recording as his first taste of Caruso, would the likely reaction be 'Humph! I don't hear anything in that to justify his reputation!'?"

As I made this list, I re-visited each recording to consider if judgments I had formed long ago of certain selections were valid today. My tastes must have changed over the years since there were a couple of surprises. In the past I had never much liked Caruso's record of "Nina," a song long attributed to Pergolesi. The tenor's approach to the song had seemed too heavy and stentorian, especially when compared to Bonci's recording of it. I listened recently and found Caruso takes more care than I had remembered and produces considerable delicacy here and there. But the overall effect is still the same: too much voice, too much portamento. Anyway, after reconsideration, "Nina" didn't make the list.

My selections of Caruso's least impressive recordings are:

1) "Luna fedel" (G & T 52442, matr. 2882). It's not that Caruso makes a false entry early on, but rather that he doesn't seem to give a hoot. I hear signs of boredom all through this performance. His Zonophone recording of the same song is far more expansive and carefully sung. The only redeeming feature of the G & T is a lovely high note at the end.

2) "Una furtiva lagrima" from L'Elisir D'Amore (G & T 52346, matr. 1786). This should never have been made in the first place, for there is no way to fit the aria on one 10 inch disc. It's rush, rush, rush all the way, and although Caruso sings well, I can find no pleasure in listening to it, especially when compared to the legendary 1904 Victors. Why this recording, of all those possible, was chosen as the sole example of Caruso in EMI's The Record Of Singing: Volume 1 baffles me utterly.

3) "Parmi veder le lagrime" from Rigoletto (Victor 88429, matr. C-11421-2). This recording, and the one following, were made at the same February 1913 session. Either the tenor was having a bad day or the recording machine was not well set up. Caruso sounds constricted and ill at ease. This is far too dramatic for the Duke. What a pity he didn't record it a decade earlier! We might have had a recording to rival Giuseppe Anselmi's reading.

4) "Agnus dei" by Bizet (Victor 88425, matr. C-12942-1). If you like your religion emotional and dramatic, you may like this. As with the Rigoletto aria cited above, Caruso sounds uncomfortable and restricted.

5) "Parted" (Victor 87186, matr. B-14550-1). Why, oh why did he record it? Tosti's song was popular in its day, of course, but Caruso's singing (for him) is expressionless. It's probably the last record I would play to introduce Caruso to beginners.

6) "Celeste Aida" from Aida (G & T 52369; matr. 2873). Made to replace the incredibly rare matrix 1784 version--and in every way inferior to it. It is indifferently sung, and the entire final phrase is omitted. It is possibly the easiest of Caruso's G & T's to obtain, as it lasted for years in various reissues, but his other versions of the aria are better.

7) "Che gelida manina" from La Boheme (Victor 88002, matr. C-3101-1). Here come the brickbats! I find this record my biggest disappointment in the tenor's discography. Freestone and Drummond like it a lot, and while some of their points are well-considered, my hunch is that here again the recording time was too short to allow Caruso to sing it as he would in the theater. The performance is not rushed, but neither are the phrases expansive and graceful as one would like. By comparison, Martinelli and Bonci soar; Caruso seems oddly earthbound.

8) "The Lost Chord" (Victor 88378, matr. C-11942-1). ". . . my fingers wandered idly, over the noisy keys . . ." Exactly.

9) "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" from Don Carlo, with Scotti (Victor 89064, matr. C-12752-1). Their last recording together, and, I believe, Scotti's last record to be published. This cut version of the great duet leaves neither singer enough space to open up. There's nothing especially wrong with Caruso's performance, although the voice sounds a little hard at times, but finer versions of the duet exist.

10) "Serenade de Don Juan" (Victor 87175, matr. B-14355-1). Caruso sings this song with, for him, an exceptional lack of grace. This is Don Juan as a serial rapist, not the subtle aristocrat.

11) "Di' tu se fedele" from Un Ballo in Maschera (Victor 87091, matr. B-11270-2). Caruso's voice sounds harsh and tight--he almost barks the music out at times. The fault may lie partly in the recording setup, but several of the other recordings made at this session (19 Nov. 1911) sound just fine.

12) "Je crois entendre encore" from Les Pecheurs de Perles (Victor 88580, matr. C-18822-3). This is sung far too heavily and with too much effort. Although Caruso transposes the aria, he may have been uncomfortable with the tessitura at this stage of his career. An unidiomatic performance, not in the same league with the 1904 recording (G & T 052066).

If granted a baker's dozen, I would probably add the ludicrous "E lucevan le stelle" (G & T 52349, matr. 1790), which contains the worst mistake Caruso ever made on an issued recording. This disc would put off a newcomer, but the recording is somewhat of a curate's egg; once Caruso and the accompanist get together, the remainder of the performance is good.

Given Caruso's recorded output, should we be surprised that there are a few lemons? Of course not. I doubt if any other early artists with as substantial a number of released recordings issued fewer weak performances, and I am certainly not aware of anyone whose discography contains as high a percentage of really distinguished ones.

The sad thing is that some material which could have been recorded never was. I can think of items he could have recorded as substitutes for the titles listed above. In making these twelve selections, I kept two criteria in mind. I have purposely excluded pieces he did record but which were never published. Also, I refrained from indulging in complete fantasy. Caruso once hummed Tristan's death for James Huneker, who was tremendously moved by it. But there is no reason to suppose that Caruso would have tackled Wagner (he sang in a few performances of Lohengrin in South America in 1901--that was the extent of his career as heldentenor). Also, I avoided roles which Caruso sang hardly ever attempted (usually only at the beginning of his career), such as Arturo in I Puritani or Elvino in La Sonnambula.

Here are twelve items I wish Caruso had recorded instead of the items listed above:

1) "Il lammento di Federico" from L'Arlesiana (Cilea). Caruso created this part and I suspect he sang it superbly. The role was insignificant to his repertoire, but it would have made a great creator's record. Meanwhile we have great recordings of the aria by Bjoerling, Gigli, and Schipa.

2) Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea)--either of the tenor arias. As a matter of fact, Caruso did record a snippet from the opera, accompanied by the composer himself. It's one of the tenor's strangest and rarest recordings. The title, "No, piu nobile," is part of a duet. No soprano was at the session, so the composer plays on and on after Caruso's solo until the engineer decided that enough was enough. Caruso created the part, and his failure to record the tenor arias adds to our loss.

3) "Ch'ella mi creda" and "Or son sei mesi" from La Fanciulla Del West. How baffling that neither of these was recorded to commemorate the most important role Caruso created! What were the folks at Victor (or what was Caruso) thinking? I have heard that Ricordi, the publisher, prohibited recordings outside of Europe for a few years after the premiere, which would explain why Caruso, Destinn, and Amato never recorded bits of the opera. From 1910 to 1914, singers in Europe recorded its arias-- Zenatello, Linda Canetti, Bettino Cappelli, Amadeo Bassi, Taurino Parvis, others. In the U.S., Edward Johnson recorded "Ch'ella mi creda" on March 5, 1920 (Victor #64886--see William Moran's discography in Ruby Mercer's The Tenor Of His Time). Caruso could have sung it in those last sessions!

4) Otello: The Love Duet. Francis Alda would have been the obvious choice as partner. I imagine a reason for not recording this is that the duet is fairly long and would have required two sides. But this did not stop Caruso from recording the final Aida duet with Gadski on two sides, nor the big duet "Invano, Alvaro . . . Le minaccie" from La Forza Del Destino with Amato. It cannot be argued that the reason for omitting the Otello duet was that it was not in his repertoire. Caruso recorded several selections from Forza long before the role entered his repertoire. Moreover, Caruso never sang Otello on stage yet he did record--superbly--two other excerpts.

5) "Quanto e bella" from L'Elisir D'Amore. Caruso recorded "Una furtiva" so many times that it's a pity he never thought Nemorino's Act I aria worth including.

6) Aida: Nile Scene complete with Gadski (or Destinn) and Amato. In the late acoustical period Martinelli and Ponselle recorded this, and the performances are magnificent. For Caruso to record the Nile scene, four to six 12-inch sides would have been required, especially if the Aida/Amonasro scene was included (Amato and Gadski did record it). What a treasure it would have been!

7) "Un tal gioco" and "Un grande spettacolo!" from I Pagliacci. Actually, Victor should have recorded the whole darned opera with Caruso, but Victor never did complete operas in those days. If the Gramophone Co. could do it in 1907 in Italy with a so-so cast, imagine the results if Victor had given it to us with Caruso, Amato or Scotti, and (my choice) Alma Gluck.

8) "Parigi, o cara" from La Traviata with Alma Gluck. This would be the perfect companion piece to their "Libiamo" from the same opera.

9) "Il mio tesoro" from Don Giovanni. It was in Caruso's repertoire, at least in London, and at least until 1904. My grandfather heard Caruso in this opera. George Bernard Shaw wrote unkind things about Caruso's performance. I've been curious.

10) Les Huguenots: Act IV Duet with Emmy Destinn. This would have to be another two-disc recording, I'm afraid, but I sure would like to hear it. Caruso may not have been Jean de Reszke, but he must have sounded wonderful in this big, very grand opera scene. Destinn recorded this selection with Karl Jorn, which is partly why I chose her. Another reason to choose Destinn is that she made only one released recording (three altogether) with Caruso.

11) Lucia Di Lammermoor: Final Scene. Many other tenors recorded it; I wish Caruso had.

12) Der Rosenkavalier: Italian Tenor's Aria, Act I. This is, I suppose, a bit of a cheat since the part was never in Caruso's repertoire. Legend has it, however, that he was approached to sing this at the world premiere, but someone decided his fee was too much for such a small part, so nothing came of the idea. I can only wish . . .

A constant theme in books about Caruso is that he was a tremendously conscientious artist and his own toughest critic. Other singers were unanimous is saying that he was the perfect colleague. He never tried to hog the limelight. It's arguable that he was as great as he was because he worked harder at singing than anyone else.

Caruso left a legacy filled with great performances. He recorded at least one selection from virtually his entire active operatic repertoire. It is a tribute to his thoroughness as an artist that he also explored works not in his repertoire--Otello, Lo Schiavo, Salvator Rosa, Leoncavallo's La Boheme--and recorded a number of songs that at first glance seem surprising choices but are done beautifully, such as "Pimpinella" and "A la luz de la luna," his only published record with Emilio de Gogorza. Who does not enjoy Caruso's bouncy, ardent performance of George M. Cohan's "Over There"?

If you collect 78s and don't play Caruso, you are missing an important and enjoyable artist. Just don't start with the twelve records I listed at the beginning! Caruso's position in the history of singing is the same as Babe Ruth's in the history of baseball, and even the Babe struck out once in a while!