Bravo Caruso!

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Gallons of ink have been spilled in an effort to explain the tenor’s uniqueness through his physical equipment and vocal exercises. It was noted that he had a mouth so cavernous he could close his lips over an egg without breaking it and an athlete’s chest expansion of nine inches. Others wrote of his ability to coordinate “into one act the flying together of the vocal chords and the emission of breath” and spoke of his unstrained breathing, resulting in pure, harmonious tones.

Yet many fine tenors have possessed such capacities. What set Caruso far apart was the intensity of the emotional effects upon his audience. His vocalized feelings, variously spiritual, earthy, carnal, seemed to resonate within the hearer’s body. Rosa Ponselle, the American soprano who made her debut opposite Caruso, called it “a voice that loves you.”

Enrico Caruso, who reached the summit of his glory in America and who, in America, found the supreme love of his life, began, at the age of forty-seven, to die in America. The first symptoms occurred on December 8, 1920, during a performance of I Pagliacci . Having caught a severe chill the week before, he collapsed between acts; a doctor allowed him to go back on for Act II.

Three days later, while singing Nemorino at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he started to cough blood. “From the wings Zirato’s hand held out a towel,” his anguished wife recalled many years later. “Enrico took it, wiped his lips and went on singing. Towel after towel was passed to him and still he sang on.” There were shouts from the audience: “Stop him! Don’t let him go on!” At the end of the act he let himself be taken home, the only time in his entire career he failed to finish an opera.

Caruso had made his last recording on September 16, Rossini’s Messe Solennelle . On Christmas Eve, pale, shaky, his side aching, he sang his last role, Eleazar, in Halévy’s La Juive . A series of pulmonary complications, including pleurisy and pneumonia, followed. In the spring, somewhat restored and full of optimism, he sailed back to Naples with his wife and infant daughter aboard the S.S. Presidente Wilson . On July 17 Caruso sent Fucito, his accompanist, a postcard: “In the best of health thanks to the sun and sea baths. I have voice to sell for still a score of years. Whatever I do, I do with great vigor.” A few days after Fucito received the card, Caruso was dead.