Enrico Caruso was not the first singer to drive mass audiences into a kind of benign insanity, but he was the first to do it in the privacy of their homes--the first media star, as compared with live performers for whom earlier audiences had to buy tickets and go to a theater. The timing of his life was perfect to make him a legend; the new art of sound recording reached a stage where it could adequately capture the timbre and inflections of a human voice (if not the accompanying instruments) just as his voice was reaching its peak, and his singing was very thoroughly documented in more than 250 records, many of which were runaway best sellers.
For purposes of legend, Caruso was equally fortunate in the timing of his death. He did not exactly die young (he was 48), but his career was still at its height, and he was still mastering new roles. Hale'vy's "La Juive," which he performed for the first time less than two years before his death, was "without doubt the most striking artistic triumph of his career," according to one critic, and the consensus is that he was still growing artistically at the time of his death. The impact of that event transcended the limits of attention usually given to classical artists and put him in a class with others who were made legends by an untimely death: Rudolph Valentino, James Dean and Elvis Presley. "They needed a songbird in heaven," said a popular song reacting to his death, "so God took Caruso away."
The records that made his name a household word have preserved his legendary status through the better part of a century. Improved technology has produced vastly better sound than can be heard on these records but no tenor voice that is better in richness of timbre, accuracy of intonation, ease and naturalness of breath control or tasteful phrasing and dramatic interpretation. He was being called "the voice of the century" as early as 1910, and as the century nears its end--a century rich in great voices--the description still finds solid support among those who love French and Italian opera.
Caruso's life, chronicled by Howard Greenfeld in colorful and highly readable detail, was as dramatic as his art, from his birth in Naples during a cholera epidemic to his death, which was blamed on pleurisy but actually was a result of overwork. A fair sample of Greenfeld's writing can be found in the description of one of his final performances, where he insisted on singing "L'Elisir d'Amore" despite hemorrhaging that discolored his costume with bloodstains: "To the astonishment of those who witnessed his ordeal, Caruso continued to sing until the close of the act, profusely bleeding yet clear-voiced except for the brief moments when the blood which rushed to this throat threatened to choke him."
The scene typifies the man in many ways: stubborn, indomitable, almost insanely convinced of his own indestructibility, but also totally dedicated to his art and his audiences and determined to fulfill his commitments. Such a performance seems incredible today, when at least one well-known tenor can cancel commitments with vague allegations of an allergy to "stage dust" or because the promotion of his movie seems more urgent than the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season.
Other highlights in a full, rich life range from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 (which happened while Caruso was there on tour) to the explosion of a bomb (probably a protest against high ticket prices) during an "Ai da" in Havana. While he was in Havana being bombed, his home on Long Island was being robbed of a half-million dollars worth of jewels, and the Black Hand (later to be known as the Mafia or La Cosa Nostra) was trying to extort money from him with threats against his children. Death threats left the tenor apparently unperturbed. In 1910, he helped the police trap two men who had tried to extort $10,000 from him, and for the rest of that season he performed under police surveillance.
By all accounts, Caruso's personality was uncommonly open, friendly and generous by any standards--sometimes quixotically so for an international opera star of his stature. That may account for his puzzling betrothal to a sales clerk, Elsa Ganelli, whom he had met while shopping for a necktie in Milan--an attachment that ultimately led to a suit for breach of promise. It also typifies his relationship with soprano Ada Giachetti, who was his mistress and bore him children. He supported her with a monthly stipend until the end of his life, although she had abandoned him and had run off with his chauffeur.
It is hard to imagine that he was guilty in the famous "Monkey House" case, when he was accused of molesting a woman in the Central Park Zoo; the plaintiff dropped out of sight and did not appear at the trial, where no substantial evidence was presented. But he was convicted (perhaps because of anti-Italian sentiment in New York at that time), and the case became an international incident. "Italian ladies are eager to be rubbed against by tenors," joked a Milan newspaper, and the audience gave him one of the great ovations of his career when he next sang at the Met, but Caruso was greatly upset.
"He could have almost any woman he wanted," said a colleague with considerable accuracy, commenting on the "Monkey House" case. This was not because he was especially handsome (some of his photos have a striking resemblance to Ernest Borgnine), but because his voice and his theatrical skills were unique. His talents were not limited to the stage; he was also a cartoonist of distinctive style and considerable ability. This aspect of his life is not particularly well represented in Greenfeld's biography, which includes only a couple of self-caricatures, not his best work. But a good collection of Caruso's drawings has been published by Dover Books (which also published his short treatise on the art of singing and a discography), and in all other respects Greenfeld has produced a useful, vivid study, well calculated to tell the general reader what he might want to know about this great artist.