In the first two decades of the 20th century, the modern Bel Canto singing tradition had its most prominent incarnation in the most revered opera singer in modern history, Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). Before his star began to rise, singing technique and the meaning of the Bel Canto style itself had already begun to change to reflect new developments in opera and aesthetic taste. At the moment that Caruso stepped into the spotlight, the final phase of the new meaning of Bel Canto was finally enacted. Indeed, the last chapter of the modern installment of the Bel Canto style was provided by Caruso’s art as it matured over the course of his career.
Caruso’s sound and artistry were not, in every sense, exclusively brand new, however. Part of his legacy was that he brought together crucial elements of classic Bel Canto style with those of the 20th century Verismo school. He still honored the classic Bel Canto ideals of beautiful tone, tasteful coloratura singing (although greatly reduced in importance), clean vocal onset, seamless legato, precise intonation, natural diction, graceful phrasing, and excellent musicianship. His historic additions to the modern Bel Canto artistic recipe included beautifully resonant, full, “open,” and “round,” tones that were capable of moving through, with thrilling vibrancy, the sonic blast of modern orchestras. Additionally, his emotionally “warm” vocal colors—of varying hues and intensities—could capture even the most tender emotion. Moreover, as importantly, he added “himself”—who he was—to his art: his passions, his generous nature, his instinctive kindness, his unabashed honesty, his integrity—his heart! The combination in one singer—in one amazing voice—of the virile and the compassionate, the powerful and the gentle, and the raw and the elegant is essential to our understanding of what set Caruso apart from all other tenors—in fact, from all other opera singers before or since.
All singers during his time had to contend with new challenges: the pitch of contemporary orchestras became higher to give more tonal brilliance to the overall instrumental sound (in modern times the mean pitch is more than a semitone above what it was during Mozart’s time in the 18th century). As we noted, to increase revenues, modern opera houses also became larger to accommodate more people, which naturally demanded that singers have increased vocal muscle. You could see that possessing a powerful voice with big high notes was a tremendous artistic asset, and often—given the dynamic requirements of more dramatic operas—a practical necessity. In this musical environment, the art of singing was no longer about soaring effortlessly and capriciously above the world and performing all those astonishing vocal acrobatic feats that once defined the classic Bel Canto style. Singing was now to be more “dramatic,” both emotionally and vocally, and respectful of the melody lines written by the composer. Clearly, the modern Bel Canto voice was to be of this world, with all its brilliant colors and primal passions. On this reshaped musical terrain, the new meaning of Bel Canto, along with Caruso’s vocal gifts and abilities, were a perfect fit. Caruso became the ideal embodiment of the Verismo tenor and began to rely more and more on his dramatic voice, although he never lost his lyrical capabilities.
Not all (or even most) of the tenors who followed Caruso strove for decibel-laden voice production despite the fact that, in the big voice department (a very popular department), he was the standard against which other singers (especially tenors) were measured. The modern era of tenors featured different styles of singing, some of which demanded lighter—more lyrical—approaches. Caruso’s immediate successor, Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957), for instance, ruled the world of Italian tenors for a number of years, and he did so with a lighter, less dramatic tone than Caruso’s. Other wonderful tenors soon followed in Gigli’s softer footsteps, such as Jussi Bjorling and Guiseppe Di Stefano. Still other singers moved a little closer to the Caruso model by mastering the “spinto” (Italian for “pushed”) sound. Spinto voices are heavier than lyrical tenors, but lighter than Caruso-like voices. Singers like Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1069), Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892-1979), and Franco Corelli (1921-2003) fall into the spinto category.
The reasons for tenors pursuing different vocal paths were not always artistic, however. It was sometimes done out of necessity. To try to sing like Caruso—with his awesome power, dark resonance, explosive high notes, exquisite mezza voce (half-voice), warmth of tone, and flexibility of voice—was simply out of reach for all other tenors. Some dramatic tenors like Francesco Merli (1887-1976) and Mario Del Monico (1915-1982) did approach the Caruso voice in some respects, particularly in sheer vocal amplitude. Even though a number of famous tenors did not try to sing with a Caruso-like voice (the big version), they could stray only so far from the tenorial framework that Caruso had erected. We could say that ALL Italianate tenors that followed Caruso extracted something from him—some element of his lyric or dramatic singing that they made their own, with some singers taking more pieces from him than others. Caruso was indeed the principle watershed for the modern tenor.
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