Today is the birthday (1873) of Enrico Caruso, an Italian operatic tenor who sang to great acclaim at the major opera houses of Europe and the Americas, appearing in a wide variety of roles from the Italian and French repertoires that ranged from the lyric to the dramatic. Caruso made 247 commercially released recordings from 1902 to 1920, which made him an internationally popular celebrity (well before celebrity culture was a thing).
Caruso came from a poor but not destitute background. He was born in Naples in the via Santi Giovanni e Paolo n° 7 and baptized the next day in the adjacent church of San Giovanni e Paolo. His parents originally came from Piedimonte d’Alife (now called Piedimonte Matese), in the Province of Caserta in Campania, in Southern Italy. Caruso was encouraged in his early musical ambitions by his mother, who died in 1888. To raise cash for his family, he found work as a street singer in Naples and performed at cafes and soirées.
On 15 March 1895 at the age of 22, Caruso made his professional stage debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples in the now-forgotten opera, L’Amico Francesco, by the amateur composer Mario Morelli. A string of further engagements in provincial opera houses followed, and he received instruction from the conductor and voice teacher Vincenzo Lombardi that improved his high notes and polished his style. During the final few years of the 19th century, Caruso performed at a succession of theaters throughout Italy until 1900, when he received a contract to sing at La Scala. His La Scala debut occurred on 26th December of that year in the part of Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème with Arturo Toscanini conducting. During this pivotal phase in his career, Caruso sang in Monte Carlo, Warsaw and Buenos Aires, and, in 1899–1900, he appeared before the Tsar and the Russian aristocracy at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow as part of a touring company of Italian singers.
The first major operatic role that Caruso created was Federico in Francesco Cilea’s L’arlesiana (1897). Then he was Loris in Umberto Giordano’s Fedora (1898) at the Teatro Lirico, Milan. He also created the role of Maurizio in Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (1902). Puccini considered casting the young Caruso in the role of Cavaradossi in Tosca at its premiere in January 1900, but ultimately chose the older, more established Emilio De Marchi instead. Caruso appeared in the role later that year and Puccini stated that Caruso sang the part better.
Caruso took part in a grand concert at La Scala in February 1901 that Toscanini organized to mark the recent death of Giuseppe Verdi. Among those appearing with him at the concert were two other leading Italian tenors of the day, Francesco Tamagno (the creator of the protagonist’s role in Verdi’s Otello) and Giuseppe Borgatti (the creator of the protagonist’s role in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier). In December 1901, Caruso made his debut at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples in L’Elisir d’Amore to a lukewarm reception. Two weeks later he appeared as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon which was even more coolly received. The indifference of the audiences and harsh critical reviews in his native city upset him deeply and he vowed never to sing there again. He later said: “I will never again come to Naples to sing; it will only be to eat a plate of spaghetti”. Caruso embarked on his last series of La Scala performances in March 1902, creating the principal tenor part of Federico Loewe in Germania by Alberto Franchetti.
A month later, on 11th April, he was engaged by the Gramophone Company to make his first group of acoustic recordings in a Milan hotel room. These ten discs swiftly became best-sellers. Among other things, they helped spread Caruso’s fame throughout the English-speaking world.
The management of London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, signed him for a season of appearances in eight different operas ranging from Verdi’s Aida to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. His successful debut at Covent Garden occurred on 14th May 1902, as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. Covent Garden’s highest-paid diva, the Australian soprano Nellie Melba, partnered him as Gilda. Subsequently, they sang together often during the early 1900s.
In 1903, Caruso made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The gap between his London and New York engagements had been filled by a series of performances in Italy, Portugal, and South America. Caruso’s debut was in a new production of Rigoletto on 23rd November 1903. This time, Marcella Sembrich sang opposite him as Gilda. A few months later, he began his lifelong association with the Victor Talking Machine Company. He made his first US records on 1st February 1904, having signed a lucrative financial deal with Victor. Thereafter, his recording career ran in tandem with his Met career, each bolstering the other, until his death in 1921.
Caruso’s timbre darkened as he aged and, from 1916 onwards, he began adding heroic parts such as Samson, John of Leyden, and Eléazar to his repertoire. He toured Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in 1917, and two years later performed in Mexico City.
Dorothy Caruso noted that her husband’s health began a distinct downward spiral in late 1920 after he returned from a lengthy North American concert tour. In his biography, his son, Enrico Caruso Jr. points to an on-stage injury suffered by Caruso as the possible trigger of his fatal illness. A falling pillar in Samson and Delilah on 3rd December had hit him on the back, over the left kidney (and not on the chest as popularly reported). A few days before a performance of Pagliacci at the Met he suffered a chill and developed a cough and a “dull pain in his side.” During a performance of L’elisir d’amore by Donizetti at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 11th 1920, he suffered a throat hemorrhage and the performance was canceled at the end of Act 1. Following this incident, a clearly unwell Caruso gave only three more performances at the Met, the final one being as Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive, on 24th December 1920. By Christmas Day, the pain in his side was so excruciating that he was screaming. Dorothy summoned the hotel physician, who gave Caruso some morphine and codeine and called in another doctor, Evan M. Evans. Evans brought in three other doctors and Caruso finally received a correct diagnosis: purulent pleurisy and empyema. Caruso’s health deteriorated further during the new year, lapsing into a coma and nearly dying of heart failure at one point. He experienced episodes of intense pain because of the infection and underwent seven surgical procedures to drain fluid from his chest and lungs. Caruso died on 2nd August 1921 while on his way to Rome for further surgery. He was 48.
Caruso sauce is a pasta sauce created in the 1950s in Uruguay, by Raymundo Monti of the restaurant Mario y Alberto, located at the intersection of Constituyente and Tacuarembó Streets in Montevideo. Italian-style dishes created in Montevideo and Buenos Aires continue to be extremely popular in restaurants, with Caruso sauce being an especial favorite. It is commonly used as a sauce for cappelletti, tortellini, or ravioli, but it can also be used for spaghetti or linguine. Basically it is a cream sauce flavored with mushrooms and ham.
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup button mushrooms thinly sliced
3 tbsp all purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp beef bouillon
3 ½ oz freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¾ cup diced smoked ham
Salt, black pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Melt the butter in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and most of the water has evaporated.
Stir in the flour until incorporated and it begins to turn golden. Slowly whisk in the milk, then the cream and beef bouillon. Continue to whisk until the sauce begins to thicken.
Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan cheese and ham. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Meanwhile, cook your pasta until al dente. Drain well and mix with the hot sauce.