When Luciano Pavarotti died in September 2007, he was hailed as ‘one of the greatest’ Italian tenors of the twentieth century. The other ‘great’? During his lifetime, Enrico Caruso was as famous as Pavarotti for his unique and powerful voice, his talent and his charisma—perhaps even more so.
In 1897, in an audition before the great Italian composer, Giacomo Puccini, Caruso sang one of Rodolfo’s arias from La Bohème. When he hit the final high C, Puccini exclaimed, ‘Who has sent you to me? God?’
Born into a poor family in Naples on February 25, 1873, Caruso was the 18th of 21 children of his father’s two marriages and the first to survive infancy. His singing career began at an early age, in the choir of his local church. After his mother’s death, the 16-year-old Caruso left his job as a mechanic’s apprentice and dedicated his life to music.
He sang in small provincial theatres until he made his operatic debut in Naples in 1894. While his first major success came in London in 1902, he established his fame at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York where, in 1903, he performed the role of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto on opening night. For the next 17 years, he opened every opera season, except one, at the Metropolitan, often under the direction of his fellow Italian, conductor Arturo Toscanini.
In 1897, Caruso met and sang with soprano Ada Giachetti. She was already married at the time but left her husband for Caruso, moved in as his de facto wife, bore him two sons, and, in 1908, clamorously left him for their chauffeur.
Apart from Caruso’s repertoire of over 50 roles in Italian and French operas, including Aida, La Traviata, La Bohème, Tosca, and Carmen, he sang a wide range of traditional Italian melodies and trendy love songs, making him very popular among the Italian immigrants in America.
In an era when the gramophone was just starting to take off, he became one of the world’s most successful recording stars. His recording of ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was the first record ever to sell more than a million copies. In all, he made over 260 recordings, mainly for the Victor Talking Machine Company, many of which have now been digitally re-mastered and are still available.
Much like so many of the operatic characters he portrayed, Caruso was a man given to excesses. He never forgot a favour nor did he pardon an offence, often refusing to ever sing again at a theatre where his reception had been anything less than enthusiastic. Short, swarthy and sturdy, he ate, drank and smoked too much, loved too often and worked too hard. He also earned huge sums of money, much of which he gave away.
In December 1920, whilst on stage, Caruso was hit by a piece of scenery, just below his left kidney. For almost a year, he suffered from complications and infections caused by this injury. To convalesce, he sailed home to Naples where he and Dorothy Park Benjamin, his young American wife of two years, and Gloria, his daughter, lived in a suite at the Hotel Vittoria. Still furnished today the way they were then, their rooms are known as the Caruso Suite.
After an unsuccessful operation, on August 2, 1921, the 48-year-old Caruso died of peritonitis. On the orders of the King, Victor Emmanuel III, his funeral mass was held at the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola, a venue normally reserved for royal occasions.
Thousands of mourners lined the streets leading to the church. His body was placed in a crystal casket in a vault at the Santa Maria del Pianto Cemetery in Naples. For the next eight years, his body was redressed in a new suit and people continued to file past the display in homage until his wife finally had the vault sealed.
It is perhaps a testament to the power of his voice that many opera lovers, few, these days, who could have heard him in person, still make the pilgrimage to his tomb.
In New York, the Enrico Caruso Museum in Brooklyn is open to visitors only by appointment. But those in Florence can make an easy pilgrimage to a place associated with this giant of opera. In 1906, Caruso bought a villa near Florence, staying there often in the 15 years before his death; it is now the Museum of Villa Caruso Bellosguardo in Lastra a Signa.
From the A1 highway, exit at Firenze-Scandicci. From the Fi-Pi-Li (going towards Pisa), exit at Lastra a Signa. After exiting, go towards Empoli, go through three stoplights, and take the first left (via Pavese) and follow the paved road which will take you to the villa’s gate.