Follow by Email

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Caruso’s Cigarettes

Listening now to Enrico Caruso’s last recording made in September of 1920, you would never suspect that you are hearing the voice of a heavy smoker. Caruso favored strong Egyptian cigarettes, even enjoying them between an opera’s acts before heading back on stage. In spite of his addiction, Caruso’s final recording—of the Crucfixus from Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle — boasts all the singer’s legendary attributes: the voice is strong, flexible and pure; full of expression and supported by unshakeable breath. Even through the hiss and crackle of the Victorola, the music seems to emanate from a voice at the top of its form, and therefore, too, from a body in robust health.

Yet the great tenor would be dead within a year of making the 78, and his smoking habit was a major factor in his demise at the age of 48. Pierre van Rensselaer Key’s classic early biography, written with aid of Caruso’s secretary Bruno Zirato, appeared just a year after Caruso’s death and offers a harrowing account of the tenor’s last stage appearances and the ensuing struggle for his life. Singing his signature role of Canio in Pagliacci at the Met on the evening of December 8, 1920, Caruso came to perhaps his most famous number, one he recorded several times —“Vesti la giubba.”

At the full-voiced high A at the crux of the aria, Caruso felt an “excruciating pain in his left side,” wires Key.  “[This] made him ‘sick all over’ and he momentarily saw black.” Even in such dire condition, Caruso was bent, literally, on safeguarding his reputation and simultaneously answering the demands of the theatre: he made a stage fall to divert attention from the vocal disaster. Key goes on:

    “[Caruso literally fell into the arms of Zirato. And amidst his sobs he managed to gasp, ‘My voice … I thought … it was … gone.’ Some minutes passed before the pain in his side had subsided enough to allow Caruso to move.  He lay crumpled and moaning in the arms of his secretary surrounded by anxious-faced members of the company. Then, supported on both sides, he walked laboriously to his dressing room. Zirato pleaded with Caruso to abandon the remainder of the performance; vain argument. Then, having been sent for, Doctor Horowitz [Caruso’s personal medical adviser] arrived. He brushed aside the attending opera house physician, Doctor Marafioti, and directly announced that ‘it was nothing serious.’ Horowitz diagnosed the ailment as intercostal neuralgia, and after strapping the singer’s left side with adhesive plaster, gave his permission for Caruso to continue with the performance. Though suffering intense pain, the tenor went on.”

Vicious bouts of coughing and hemorrhaging blood into his handkerchief ensued in the days that follwed, these episodes quelled only by plentiful helpings of morphine and codeine. Yet Caruso managed to continue to appear at the Met over the next two weeks; with the assurance of his doctor that the condition was still “nothing” he sang in La Juive on Christmas Eve, 1920.  It was his last public performance. By Christmas Day Caruso was screaming in pain. After returning to Italy to convalesce, he made some brave attempts to sing in private, but died in August of 1921 in the Vesuvio Hotel in Naples.

No comments:

Post a Comment