Jürgen Kesting: Enrico Caruso and the Voice of the Tenor

Film: » Belcanto – The Tenors of the 78 Era «

Nothing is more attractive to the imitator than the inimitable. The fact that, as Luciano Pavarotti has said, “all tenors of the Italian genre have taken Caruso as their model”, leads at once to the conclusion that a stylistic trend came to an end with him, or even became frozen rigid.  The quest­ion as to the reasons for this orientation towards one single super-ego, however, is never asked; indeed, it is unfortunately even suppressed. This makes the statement by the composer Sydney Homer, whose wife Louise often sung opposite Enrico Caruso (1873 to 1921) at the Met, all the more interesting: “Before Caruso came along, I had never heard a tenor who sounded remotely like him. After his time I have heard one voice after another, large ones and small ones, high ones and deep ones, which tried to be similar to his, often with great effort.”

One reason for this was the “media-fication of the tenor voice”. With the ten gramophone records which the 29-year-old Neapolitan tenor recorded as the Grand Hotel in Milan on 11th April 1902, he made the record into a medium. The reverse is also true: the record made him. He created the basis for that which one could call “canned fame”, which all his colleagues then also wanted to enjoy, even the older ones. Barely a year later, a dozen tenors of the Italian genre had followed him into the recording studio – not to mention the castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858 to 1921), whose first recording was made a week before Caruso’s. They are the distant, and unfortun­ately dull, echo of a tradition that had already died out even then.

When Homer, who had been born in 1870, started training at the Scuola di San Salvatore, the art of the castrato already lay half a century in the past. Rossini (in Aureliano in Palmira, 1816) and Meyerbeer (Il Crociato in Egitto, 1824) were the last to have written castrato roles. He became a member of the choir of the Sistine Chapel in 1883 – this is the Pope’s personal choir, and he at once became famous as l’angelo di Roma. His recordings of liturgical – if not always deeply pious – music meet few of the high expectations that Handel, Mozart, Charles Burney, Quantz, Schopenhauer, or Stendhal had sung of the sensational castratovirtuosi of the 18th century. But the sound, however trembling it may be, is an echo of the penetrating, elegiac musical tone of the evirati.

The most interesting tenor at the end of the 19th century was Fernando de Lucia (1860 to 1925), born like Caruso in Naples and celebrated as la gloria d’Italia. He studied at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella under Beniamo Carelli and Vincenzo Lombardi, made his debut in 1885 at the Teatro San Carlo as Faust, and within only two years was one of the great starts. Although trained in the belcanto tradition of decorative singing (canto fiorito), he became famous for his singing of “verismo” parts. He sang in the first performances of Mascagnia’s L’amico Fritz (1891), Silvana (1895), and Iris (1898), and in 1893 he sang in both the London and the New York first performances of Pagliacci. He made his first recordings six months later than Caruso, in November 1902, and his last ones in 1920 – the total came to nearly 500, twice as many as Caruso. Because his high notes were “short”, Lucia always had to transpose. The remarkable feature of his relatively dark voice was the pronounced vibrato – originally an artistic device with which the 19th century tenors sang the full note (from B flat’ to C’) with the “head-voice” of voce mista and thus tried to conceal the transition. The Duke’s ballata we can hear the stylistically correct art of decor­ation, even though it is looked down upon today; it was permissible for long-held notes, modulat­ions, and at the end of a verse, and was indispensable in creating second verses.

Enrico Caruso (1873 to 1921) was a pupil of Gugliemo Vergine and of Vincenzo Lombardi, who as a conductor recognised the need for the voices of his pupils to adapt to the new verismo style (the term “style” is only logical if one regards it as a fusion of music and technique). To simplify, verismo requires a voice with one register, stretching from c to c". Caruso took nearly four years after his debut (on 15th March 1895, in Morelli’s L’amico Francesco) until he could sing a satisfactory B flat’ for the first time; this was as Radames in a guest performance in St Petersburg in 1899. He had already achieved his first great success, in the first performance of Fedora (Umberto Giordano), and came to fame with his debut in the La Scala in December 1900. He gave guest performances in London in 1902, and on 23rd November 1903 he sang the first of 627 performances at the Met, which from then on was to be the centre of his artistic work. In his interpretation of Nemorino’s Una furtiva lagrima, written in 1904 (the third of four recordings), one can still hear all the finesse of belcanto – the soft attack of the note, the cut-glass decorations, the powerful increases in the voice (messa di voce), and the subtle morendi – but at the same time one can already here the emphatic, affective gestures of verismo. He is inimitable in Mi batte il cor, O Paradiso, the wildly lyrical singing of the beginning of the crescendo at Tu m’appartieni. Core ‘ngrato, a canzone about the pain of love, confirms Richard Strauss’ saying that Caruso “sings the soul of the melody”. Leo Slezak (1873 to 1946) studied under Adolf Robinson in Berlin, made his debut in Brno in 1896, and sang from 1898 in the Hofoper in Berlin, from 1900 to 1909 as a guest singer in London, from 1901 onwards under Gustav Mahler in the Vienna Hofoper, and from 1909 onwards at the Met, making his debut there as Othello. As an actor, he has been compared to the actor Salvini. This Bohemian singer, who from 1907 onwards worked further on his technique in Paris under Jean de Reszke, sang a slender, lyrical, heroic tenor with a bright, silvery, and at the same time penetrating voice – nothing like it has been heard for decades. Unlike all the other tenors who followed Caruso, he was able to hear the highest notes, like in Arnold’s aria in Rossini’s William Tell, with a highly concentrated, radiant head-voice.

“Since when have you been a baritone?” asked Caruso, when John McCormack (1884 to 1945) congratulated him as “the greatest tenor in the world”. After winning a singing competition in Dublin, this Irish singer studied under Vincenzo Sabbatini in Milan, and sang for the first time at the Covent Garden Opera in London in 1907. In 1909 he made his debut at the Manhattan Opera, at that time a competitor to the Met, where he applied to be considered in 1911. Somewhat awkward as an actor, he concentrated more and more on concerts from 1912 onwards, and became fabulously rich with recordings of folk–music ballads and folk-songs which sold by the million. His recording of Don Ottavio’s Il mio tesoro from Don Giovanni is a classic interpretation – instrumentally pure singing in perfect form. The long-held, crescendo F’s are pure and silvery, and follow perfectly one after the other like a pearl necklace, and coloratura sung with an endless stock of breath linking the two verses.

Beniamino Gigli (1890 to 1957) regarded it as too much of a burden to be asked to assume the mantle of Caruso. Born in Recanati, he studied under the legendary belcanto baritone Antonio Cotogni and under Enrico Rosati before winning the competition in Parma in 1914. “We have found him – the tenor”, reported one of the adjudicators, Alessandro Bonci (once a rival to Caruso in New York) about the young singer with the golden voice (what a wonderful mezza-voce sound in the Serenade from Iris). After rapid successes in Rovigo, Genoa, and Bologna, he came to La Scala in 1918 and made his debut as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele, as he did again at the Met in 1920. He sang there until 1931, when unavoidable reductions in fees caused by the world economic crisis caused him to return to Italy and throw himself into the arms of fascism – and a series of kitsch hits from which he never really recovered. In the first decade of his career, Gigli possessed a lyrical tenor voice of an enchanting musical dolcezza. However, as early as the 1920s he reverted, under Caruso’s influence, to the affective gestures of verismo and added sobs and sighs to his performance – a rhetorical expression which, however, if one thinks of the political speeches of the time, was in keeping with the spirit of the age.

“Although he only had a small voice,” said Gigli about Tito Schipa (1889 to 1965), a singer born in the southern Italian town of Lecce, “we all had to bow our heads before his art”. After studying under Alceste Gerunda and Emilio Piccolo, Schipa made his debut in 1911 in Vercelli, as Alfredo in La Traviata. He came to La Scala in 1915, and sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1919 to 1932, and also at the Met from 1932 to 1935, and again in 1940/41. The fact that he was generally regarded as the ideal of a belcanto tenor is due to a misunderstanding; although his voice was as smooth as satin, with a slightly nasal shadow in the middle range and a full blossoming at the top of his range and his smorzaturi (notes dying away to a breath, as can be heard in Werther’s aria) fulfilling the musical ideal of belcanto, a comparison with De Lucia shows that he was only to a limited extent able to meet the virtuoso requirements of canto fiorito. Even in the musically enchanting recording of Una furtiva lagrima one will not find such elegant decoration as in Caruso’s incomparable interpretation. Nevertheless, he was an artist with a wonderful power of expression.

No tenor has dominated his roles in such a masterly way, nor placed himself so far ahead of his rivals, as Lauritz Melchior (1890 to 1973) in the Wagner field. Even on the most stringent criteria he was the only Wagnerian tenor there has ever been who was absolutely incomparable as Tannhäuser, as Siegmund, as Siegfried, and as Tristan. A pupil of Paul Bang, he started as a baritone in his native city of Copenhagen before retraining as a tenor under Vilhelm Herod, Victor Beigel, Ernst Grenzebach, and the great Wagner expert Anna Bahr-Mildenburg. After he had sung Siegmund in London in 1924, he became the leading tenor at the Bayreuth Festival from 1924 to 1931, still under the aegis of Cosima Wagner. From 1926 onwards he sang in about 500 Wagner performances at the Met.

Booted out by Rudolf Bing, he built up a second and equally great career in films and show business. This Danish singer had a dark, technically perfect “covered” voice which radiated energy in the upper register. It could pour out clouds of music, as in Siegmund’s Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater, and endlessly sustained as the live (!) recording from the Met. He was a subtle performer, as is shown in the extremely fine, painful colours of Othello’s monologue from the Third Act of Verdi’s opera.

If one were to make an imaginary ranking order of the best lyrical tenors of the century, Richard Tauber (1891 to 1948) would have to take a leading place, or perhaps even the top position. As his Freiburg teacher Carl Beines said, in his younger years he only had a “thin thread” of a voice. However, after his debut in Chemnitz (in 1913) he graduated in the same year to the State Opera in Dresden, then in Berlin (1919), and then Vienna (1925). Developing in the age of radio and the microphone, Tauber was one of the first media stars, partly on account of his close links with Franz Lehar, whose later works such as Paganini, Friederike, Land of Smiles, and Giuditta were exactly tailor-made for Tauber. Even if Tauber was not above indulging in sweet-and-sickly, sometimes sentimental effects, he was until the end of his days a stylist of the highest rank, sup­reme in technique, a singer whose singing spontaneously augmented the composition. It is typical of his technique that he attempted to attain the full, rich tone of Caruso, even though this cost him the notes of his upper range; he either had to switch to falsetto or create them nasally. The most attractive aspect of his singing, however, was its supple elegance and eloquence in the ballad of Kleinzack and simple, natural grace of his Lieder – whether he was singing Schubert or a folk-song. One should also not forge that he was an accomplished pianist and an excellent conductor.

Tauber had no B flat or C, but Helge Rosvænge (1897 to 1972) could flaunt them with bravado. Originally trained as a chemist, he studied in Copenhagen and Berlin, made his debut in Neustrelitz in 1921, and then threaded his way – a helpful route for the development of a singer – through the provinces before arriving at the Berlin State Opera in 1929, singing there and in Vienna and Salzburg (1932 to 1939) until 1945. This Danish singer may not have been a detailed stylist, but he was a specialist in versatility: he sang lyrical Mozart roles, minor and heroic Beethoven roles, as well as Wagner and Verdi. Like the Italian tenors of his day, Gigli, Pertile, and Merli, he sang with a powerful, often flaming emphasis – an echo of the political speeches of those years. This gives his recording of  Florestan’s aria an incomparably pathetic intensity.

A French singer born in the same year as Rosvænge, George Thill (1897 to 1984), was the last really outstanding French tenor. He was born in Paris, was dissatisfied with his training at the Conservatoire, and went to Naples in order to study under Fernando de Lucia. Whatever he may have learned in terms of pure voice technique from the great Italian singer, in stylistic terms he belongs to a different and much more modern school. After his debut at the Paris Opera in 1924, he sang in Verona, Milan, London, New York, and Buenos Aires, but never achieved any great success of the kind that would have led to a permanent engagement. This was not due to the qualities of his clear, bright, but still strikingly masculine voice, but to his puristic style. A “sigh of disappointment” ran through the Met when he sang in a voix mixte, as one can hear in his recording of the c’ in Salut, demeure – stylistically absolutely correct. In operas by Gluck, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Massenet, Berlioz, and Bizet he is one of the tenors of this century who set new stylistic standards.

Without radio, and the amplifying support of the microphone, Joseph Schmidt (1904 to 1942), who in fact came from Davidende in Romania, would never have been able to have any kind of a career. A physically small man, he made his debut with the Berlin radio by sight-reading (!) Mozart’s Idomeneo, and became quickly famous as a radio and film star with his Ein Lied geht um die Welt. However, being Jewish had to leave Germany in 1933, and he died in dreadful circumstances in a Swiss internment camp in 1942. He was never able to draw on his bank accounts and the money he had managed to rescue. Schmidt had a lyrical tenor voice with plenty of volume, particularly in the higher and highest range (the first Fifth of the lower octave sounds dull and often breathy). The special magic of his singing, however, can be found in the painfully elegiac tones of his timbre. When he sings Eléazar’s aria from Halévy’s “La Juive”, the tone and colour of the deep pain shows that happiness is transient.

Perhaps traditions can best be preserved when they are broken – and if there has been a tenor of the Italian (and French) genre who did not take his line from Caruso, and thus came closer to him than any other, then it was the Swedish singer Jussi Björling (1911 to 1960). A member of a family quartet as a boy, he was already very well trained musically when he started his studies under the great baritone John Forsell.

At his debut as the lamplighter in Manon Lescaut, he sang only a few words, but was soon an up-and-coming star once he had sung Don Ottavio. He made his debut as Radames and Manrico in Vienna in 1938, and in the same year came to the Met, where, with a few interruptions, he continued to sing right up until his early death. Compared with the empathetic singing of his Italian and German colleagues, Björling was a classicist. Interpreting his refusal to indulge in the outwardly emphatic effects of verismoas a lack of spirit would be to reveal a great lack of judgement. Just as Björling was a purist in the forming of the musical line and in tonal shading, he was brilliantly fiery in his phonation. He hit the high and highest notes with incomparable verve. His silvery-pure and elegant voice was not large, in terms of volume, but his projection was so perfect that the high notes ran over his audience like a shell from a gun.

Ex oriente lux, as the saying goes. But which tenor from the eastern hemisphere is well known in the West? Although Russia has always been regarded as the homeland of basses, it is often an acquired taste, one that almost has to be fought for, that can take to the Russian tenor’s often light and nasal (and also guttural) timbre. A special place therefore has to be reserved for Ivan Kozlovsky (1900 to 1993), with his unusual but at the same time enchanting voice. He came from the Ukraine, and was trained in Kiev. His teacher Lysenko, and Lysenko’s wife Muravjova, were still from the Court opera and belcanto tradition, and Koslovski was a member of the Bolshoi ensemble for three decades, starting in 1926, and he even appeared with them at the age of 90 (!) to sing the couplet in the triquet in Tchaikovski’s Eugene Onegin. His lyrical tenor voice admittedly had a silvery-fine timbre, but, like Slezak and Björling, he was able because of his projection to sing roles like the Duke, Faust, and Lohengrin, and virtually all the tenor roles of the Russian genre. How touching and moving it was when he sang the jester in Mussorgki’s Boris Godunov with his age grown tender and meditative with age. Modern taste, which attempts to reduce every kind of virtuoso talent in a singer to an arte povera, would regard the artistic and effective style of this Russian singer as over-mannered; he could spin out phrases like Battistini or Schipa, but that would be to ignore one of the finest echoes of bel canto.

Film: » Belcanto – The Tenors of the 78 Era «