There are certain artists whose work is so distinct and influential that it becomes inseparable from the history of their chosen art. Think of William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Henry James, Ingmar Bergman -- and think of Enrico Caruso.
Eighty years after his death, Caruso (1873-1921) remains a towering figure in the world of opera. Today, there are only a few people still living who can remember hearing the tenor in person. And yet, every year, Caruso's recordings continue to sell by the thousands (exactly how many is impossible to tell, as they are now out of copyright and available from any number of different companies). He has been the subject of more than a dozen biographies (including a fanciful Hollywood biopic, "The Great Caruso," starring Mario Lanza) and his image was even featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1987.
Tomorrow and Saturday nights, actor Ray Felton will appear in William Luce's play "Bravo, Caruso!," presented by the Mount Vernon Players, directed by Darryl Winston and co-starring Peter Krueger. The play is an engaging, affectionate and well-researched evocation of Caruso on the night of his final performance -- Dec. 24, 1920 -- as he entertains reporters in his dressing room backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House.
On that long-ago Christmas Eve, Caruso was already very ill from the mysterious ailments that would kill him the following August at the age of 48. Still, in Felton's vivid and multifaceted portrayal, the tenor is alternately charming and narcissistic, imperious and childlike, confident in his abilities and deeply frightened by his failing health.
One recalls that this operatic legend was not only revered but genuinely loved by his colleagues.
Just what made Caruso stand out among his fellow singers, past and present? He started out with a marvelous voice -- full, strong, colorful, unified in all registers, from a sure, clarion high C down through an easy command of low notes that are more naturally sung by a baritone or bass. To this, he added an unprecedented emotional urgency that never lapsed into tasteless bawling. Caruso himself once said that a great singer needed "a big chest, a big mouth, 90 percent memory, 10 percent intelligence, lots of hard work and something in the heart." All this he had, and more.
It was serendipitous for posterity that Caruso's great years corresponded exactly with the development and initial commercial success of the phonograph record. Indeed, it has been said that Caruso made the record industry as surely as the record industry made Caruso. The tenor cut his first set of discs in 1902 for the Gramophone and Typewriter company -- 10 arias and songs tossed off in an afternoon for what was then considered an "exorbitant" 100 pounds sterling (about $150). If the singer and his accompanist, one Salvatore Cottone, had known that these recordings would still be on sale almost a century later, they might have corrected some of the errors that were immortalized that long-ago April day -- some false starts and Caruso's occasional throat-clearing, along with some sketchy playing from Cottone.
It didn't matter; the records were vibrant and exciting and created a sensation. By 1904, Caruso had signed an exclusive contract with the Victor Talking Machine Co. (later RCA Victor) and the remainder of his 260-odd three- and four-minute discs were all made for that label. They sold in the millions and, through them, Caruso became the first opera star to reach a world public. His appeal knew no class distinctions, for he was an early exponent of what has since been dubbed "crossover" repertory and recorded Italian popular songs and George M. Cohan's patriotic anthem "Over There" as well as the arias of Verdi and Puccini.
Unlike many of today's stars, who perform throughout the world and sometimes change continents several times in a week, Caruso mostly stayed put. From the autumn of 1903, his principal association was with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and he sang as many as 50 performances per season with the troupe. His early death -- from what has variously been described as pleurisy, peritonitis and kidney failure -- was an artistic calamity.
Most operaphiles would agree that nobody has ever quite taken Caruso's place. Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) had a gorgeous voice, honeyed and sun-splashed, yet lacked his great predecessor's artistic intelligence and infallible taste. Jussi Bjoerling (1911-60) was another wonderful singer, but he never commanded Caruso's range, nor did he try. Luciano Pavarotti famously wrapped himself in the Caruso mantle, but was really a different kind of artist -- a splendid lyric tenor whose best performances were in works that demanded smooth and supple vocalism rather than dramatic intensity. Placido Domingo is probably the tenor whose artistry may be most profitably compared to that of Caruso. Like Caruso, Domingo has mastered an extraordinary number of roles (more than 100, and counting) and they range all the way from the florid sweetness of the comic operas of Rossini and Donizetti through the heroic challenges of Verdi's "Otello" and Saint-Saens's "Samson et Dalila."
In fact, Domingo has gone further than his predecessor, moving into the stentorian and unbelievably strenuous Wagnerian repertory, such as the title role in "Parsifal" and Siegfried in "Die Walkure." "When my voice is aged, I shall be able to shout as loud as I like," Caruso once answered a reporter who wondered why he never sang Wagner. The 60-year-old Domingo hardly "shouts," yet it is true that his most enthralling performances of Wagner have come in the latter part of his career, at an age when Caruso was already in his grave.
Such was the technology of the time -- and the short-sighted thinking of the Victor company -- that Caruso never recorded a complete opera (although it is possible to assemble a reasonably unified hour of Gounod's "Faust" with arias and ensembles by the tenor, soprano Geraldine Farrar, baritone Antonio Scotti and bass Marcel Journet). But he did record most of the tenor "hits" -- some of them, such as Verdi's "Celeste Aida," not once but several times -- and a good deal of unexpected material as well, including arias by Handel and Lully, a giddy and glorious set of quartets from Flotow's "Martha" and even the bass aria, "Vecchia zimarra," from Puccini's "La Boheme." (He never allowed this last recording to be issued during his lifetime, insisting, with typical good humor, that he didn't want to put all the professional basses out of business.)
By the way, "Bravo, Caruso" does not call upon Felton to sing. We hear Caruso only through his recordings, all of which are currently available on compact disc, in versions from Pearl, BMG Classics and several other labels. The most recent offering is the beginning of a complete set from the enterprising Naxos label, which will eventually encompass 12 CDs. The first six volumes have already been released (a bargain at $5.97 each), carrying Caruso's career through 1912. The transfers, by Ward Marston, feature amazingly fresh sound, especially in the recordings Caruso made after signing with Victor (from Volume 2 onward).
Bravo, Caruso! at Mount Vernon Place Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW; tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. Suggested contribution is $15. Call 202-347-9620 or 202-408-1008 for more information.