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Subject: Re: Caruso v Contemporary/Re: Pavarotti Ranking
From: Monique Musique <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Monique Musique <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 2 Apr 2004 21:36:48 -0500
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I am myself not old enough to have heard Caruso "live," but was fortunate
enough to know one personally.  I had many conversations with him about
Caruso, and this was his take on him (condensed, of course, but with some
marvelous first-hand anecdotes thrown in).

Caruso was (in his words) just a jolly Italian with a golden voice.  He
never really seemed to care much about character or acting except when he
sang Nemorino or Samson (which he felt were his best roles).  The
funniest, he thought, was when he sang Gluck's "Armide" opposite Olive
Fremstad.  In his words, Caruso looked like a beached whale onstage in
that opera.  His Canio was definitely over-the-top, very similar to what
you can see in the movie.  The voice was golden, like an organ.  The only
latter-day singer he could compare him to was early Jose Carreras, in the
days when his organ-like voice rode effortlessly over massed singers,
chorus and orchestra at the end of Act 2 of "Boheme."

Apparently, Riccardo Martin (Ricky Martin from Tennessee) was
Caruso's "cover" at the Met.  Caruso rarely canceled but, when he did,
audiences stormed the box office demanding refunds before poor Martin (who
had a very fine voice, by the way) ever opened his mouth....just because
he wasn't Caruso!  One time, Martin was the scheduled tenor, and he
canceled.  Much to everyone's shock, the house manager came before the
gold curtain to announce that Mr. Caruso happened to be in the audience
and graciously consented to sing that evening.  There was a wave of
applause through the house...and one very disgruntled Tennesseean who had
rode all the way to New York in a Model-T to hear the local boy sing.
This time, HE stormed the box office for a ticket refund!  There's a
footnote to this story.  In the 1970s, my friend heard Beverly Sills at
the Met in "Siege of Corinth" and complained during intermission about how
small and shrill her voice was.  Suddenly a female voice behind him
said, "Thank you for your crticism of my daughter!"  My friend turned
around and said, "Well, you know, taste is very personal.  I knew people
who walked out on Caruso!"

My friend, like almost everyone who heard Caruso live, just adored the
voice.  But he was not musical in the true sense of the word.  He did not
know scores or phrasing and could not tell when a singers was flat or
sharp.  But we have yet another eyewitness, with a very highly-developed
musical sense, to give us a word portrait of Caruso at the Met.  This was
Arturo Toscanini.  Toscanini constantly argued with Caruso about his
phrasing that allowed him to "explode" notes in both the middle and upper
ranges of his voice to the detriment of phrasing.  But he never complained
about the voice per se.  Indeed, he once said that the notes Caruso
produced were like "cut diamonds," which to me describes his voice much
better than simply "golden."  You can almost visualize such a sound.  I
find Caruso's recordings to be a mixed bag, stylistically, yet oddly some
of them are very musical.  My favorites are the alternate (unissued) take
of "Deserto in terra" from "Don Sebastiano," Rossini's "Cujus animam"
(complete with a high D-flat in head voice, beautifully placed and
sounding oddly like Gigli), the trio from "Lombardi," the quartets
from "Martha" and all of his excerpts from "La Forza del
Destino"...obviously an opera he liked, since he never distorted a single
phrase in any of those recordings.

My friend who heard Caruso also told me that, though it was little
reported at the time, the backstage gossip made it very clear that there
was one tenor who sang at the Met he was extremely jealous of, and that
was Hipolito Lazaro.  When Lazaro sang "I Puritani" there in 1918, his
high notes above the staff literally galvanized audiences...and Caruso as
well.  After a very few appearances there the following season, Lazaro
disappeared from the Met.  Lazaro's acoustics sound mostly dreadful, but
you can get an idea of what made Caruso jealous from his electrical
recording of the zarzuela "Marina," recorded in 1930 with Mercedes Capsir
(the human steam kettle) and two truly great Hispanic singers, baritone
Marcos Redondo and bass Jose Mardones.  My friend said that Lazaro's
voice, and the Welsh coal miner Morgan Kingston (who made very few
records, the best of which is "Sound an alarm" by Handel), were tenors who
could rival Caruso in their copious overtones and luscious timbres.

No one who ever heard Caruso "live" disliked the voice.  They only
complained about his acting (either provincial or nonexistent, except for
the two roles mentioned) and his musical style.  One other thing.  My
friend pointed out that Caruso's "French voice" was, in his view, warmer
and different in timbre from his singing in Italian.  You can hear this
yourself in his French recordings.  If I had to pick just one Caruso
recording that totally lives up to the legend - vocally, stylistically and
dramatically - it would be a record that Caruso (but not most of his fans)
ranked among his favorites: "Inspirez-moi, race Divine" from
Gounod's "Queen of Sheba."  Another friend of mine, the late Tom Villella,
who wrote the liner notes to the original Stockham soundstream transfers
when they first came out on LP, would play that record over and over and
over again.  He could never get enough of it.

Monique

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