Saturday 18 November 2017

Classical talk: The Great Caruso - first of the recording stars

Problem child: Enrico Caruso was born 144 years ago
Problem child: Enrico Caruso was born 144 years ago

George Hamilton

Last weekend, I went to see a movie about a footballer, George Best: All By Himself. While he may not have been the first of his sport's superstars, he was the one whose arrival­coincided with regular television exposure - positive - and the emergence of the paparazzi - in George's case, obviously, much less so.

Today, it's the birthday of one of music's biggest names of the past, who was himself propelled to prominence by being in the right place at the right time.

The Great Caruso was what they called the movie about the man who became music's first major recording star. It was only loosely based on fact, but you didn't really need fiction to tell the tale of this trailblazing tenor.

Enrico Caruso was born in Naples, on February 25, 1873, the elder of two boys whose father was a mechanic. He said himself he was a bit of a problem child, always singing, always making noise.

Life was mapped out for him. He would learn the trade and become a mechanic like his father. Music was restricted to singing in the church choir.

But the death of his mother when he was in his teens convinced him he should try to break free and make the most of what he had as a singer.

He didn't have any formal musical education until he was 18, and from that moment on, he never looked back.

Not that there wasn't the odd hiccup along the way. His steady, upward progress stalled on his debut at La Scala, what should have been the pinnacle of his success.

He was playing Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème, but he wasn't well. Nerves weren't helping. The La Scala audience greeted the conclusion of each act with stony silence. At least he didn't suffer the fate of Roberto Alagna 10 years ago, who was booed and fled the stage, to be replaced by an understudy in jeans.

But it was a minor setback. Caruso was undoubtedly star material, and he'd been spotted by one of the companies who were dabbling in the new technology of gramophone recording.

The Caruso collection quickly became bestsellers and spread the word about this Italian singing sensation.

The next year - at the age of 30 - he made his American debut, on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's season, as the Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto.

It would be the first of 17 opening nights Caruso would sing, a record that would stand until 1999 when the season premièred with Placido Domingo in the lead role for the 18th time. Domingo sang Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, the role that Caruso had made his own.

Domingo, with Pavarotti and Carreras, one of the Three Tenors who broke the mould with their concert at the 1990 football World Cup, was beginning his 31st season at the Met. Caruso, though, had dominated that stage, his 17 opening nights coming in the space of only 18 seasons. He performed there on 863 occasions.

His was the voice of his age. At the start of the gramophone era, he made over 250 recordings, most still available today. But for failing health, there would in all probability have been many more. Caruso died in Naples in 1921 at the age 48.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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