From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

Caruso as the Duke of Mantua

Enrico Caruso in Rigoletto, November 23, 1903


New York first learned of the new tenor in 1902 when reports from London told of his success as a highly paid guest at social entertainments. A New York Times summary of the Covent Garden opera season wasn't notable for foresight: "The Italian tenor Caruso and the Scotch-American prima donna, Mary Garden, shared some of the personal triumphs of the season, but the talents of neither can be called epoch making...." Little wonder, then, that when Heinrich Conried, the new General Manager of the Met, found his predecessor's contract with Enrico Caruso he at first tried to reduce the 25 performances to 10. Caruso refused and by the time Conried had completed his plans for his first season, he had gone into a phonograph store in Paris and listened to the voice on recordings recently made in Milan. Caruso was scheduled for Opening Night of Conried's first season.

Rehearsal Drawing
Drawing of a rehearsal for the November 23, 1903 Opening Night performance of Rigoletto
by C. De Fornaro for the The World

A preseason account described backstage preparations: "In one part of the house is a large, handsomely furnished parlor, which serves as a temporary greenroom for the principals. Here a rehearsal of Rigoletto by all the singers of the extraordinary cast, which will be heard at the opening tomorrow night, is going on.

"Vigna, the Italian conductor, is at the piano. By his side stands Marcella Sembrich, very gracious and charming, in black, with a plumed picture hat, holding in her right hand a lorgnon which she uses mostly to beat time with, now and again giving out mezza voce a phrase of music that is like a string of pearls. Caruso, the new tenor, stands close in the group when singing with them, and the rest of the time strolls about the room. He is a jovial, handsome young fellow, of the dark Italian type, a little too stout for an Apollo Belvedere, and dressed none too fastidiously in a walking suit of brownish tweed. His voice is a full, pure tenor, with delicious velvety tones, yet alive with dramatic fire in every note. Barring accidents he cannot fail to create a furore, and if he can act one-quarter as well as he sings he will become as great a favorite here as Campanini was twenty years ago.

"Other notable members of the Rigoletto cast bunched about Vigna's piano are [Giuseppe] Campanari, the fiery baritone [who was not in the cast], [Marcel] Journet, the big basso, and [Aristide] Masiero, the second tenor. They all know Verdi's opera backwards and in their sleep. This rehearsal is merely for the finer details of expression and for the big ensembles. Such an artistic treat is not to be enjoyed every day nor every opera night either - a fact so well appreciated that in the lobby outside the open door of the rehearsal parlor is gathered a motley but spellbound audience - ballet girls in starting undress; house workmen in overalls, one or two stockholders of the concern, some musicians from the orchestra, and a messenger boy, all huddled in an intently listening group. The ballet girls are the only ones who dare to whisper comment, but they are free enough - gushing rapturously over Sembrich and Caruso, humming the familiar music and mimicking Vigna's frantic falsetto voice as he endeavors to emphasize an expression here and there.

"The great artistes take this sort of homage very complacently. Caruso, in fact, comes romping out into the lobby like a great schoolboy, makes eyes at the adoring ballet girls, chucks one of them under the chin, and then with hands thrust in his pockets marches up and down with a mock heroic air, imitating sotto voce all the other singers, including Sembrich, with an irresistibly comic effect that sets everybody in giggling humor.

"Fornaro addresses him in Italian. Will he kindly pose for a little sketch? Sicurro! How will this profile do? Bene! The sketch is made, Caruso criticizes it. Yes, it is good, but - here! let him have the pencil and pad, he will draw his own portrait, just to show how good looking he really is. Caruso certainly has in him the making of a first class draughtsman. His self-portrait is very successful indeed, whereat he is elated, and exclaims to Fornaro, "Hold! I shall now sketch you." So the sketcher is sketched by the tenor, with not a little touch of caricature." [The World]

An odd legend says that Caruso's success in New York was gradual. His debut as the Duke in Rigoletto on Opening Night, November 23, 1903 was a triumph that only began quietly. The reviews tell a story of increasing enthusiasm as the performance progressed.

"...Strange to say, whereas the new conductor, Mr. Vigna, was greeted with a round of applause when he took his seat in the lowered orchestral space, where he disappeared from sight, not a hand was raised for Mr. Caruso when he became visible on the stage. Nobody seemed to know him; only thirty years of age - and he was hardly known, even in Italy, until five years ago....If Mr. Caruso was received in silence, the loud applause which greeted his first air, 'Questa o quella,' made ample amends. And the enthusiasm grew from act to act, culminating in an ovation after 'La donna e moblie.' This awful tune he robbed of much of its vulgarity by the way he sang it. True, he aggravated its catchpenny effect by his vocal flourishes at the end; but the changes of pace he introduced in the melody made it seem less offensive than usual, and his phrasing, here as in the other numbers, was remarkably artistic and refined. Like some of his famous colleagues, he was not at his best early in the evening; but as he warmed up to his task his voice was revealed as a genuine tenor of excellent quality, which it will be a pleasure to hear again. To hear him sing duos with Mme. Sembrich was a rare treat" [New York Post November 24, 1903].

"Enrico Caruso, the young Italian Tenor, who after a triumphal progress through Europe and South America has come to take American approval and American dollars to his bosom, under the benevolent guiding of Heinrich Conried, made his entrance last night at the Metropolitan before an audience that filled every box, every rising bank of seats to the smoky height of the topmost gallery, every chair on the floor, and packed the standing room with listeners who yielded to the force of his appeal and drowned him in applause and recalls.

"Not that he is the greatest tenor ever heard in New York - Caruso has no such violin note in his voice as the wonderful De Reszke - or, if he has, he did not display it last night, and it may be supposed that he gave of his best. But compared - if one may venture upon anything so odious - with his most famous countryman in recent years, he is woodwind to brass - he can sing a legato, and the other never could. He pretends to be such a singer in his part as Sembrich is in hers, and he 'made good,' in the compelling idiom of the streets, to the popular ear. He is 'simpatico' enough for that. And he has not been a hero of the lyric stage seven years for nothing. He knows the tricks of his trade very well. In the first act he kept his voice in his pouch. 'Questa o quella' was brisk and melodious - and that was about all. People said, ' Why yes, but ----.' Caruso changed all that when he reappeared as the eager lover in Gilda's backyard. He sang 'Love is the sun' with such fire and passion that his sentiment counted almost as much as his execution. People got up and shouted at him. There was danger of an encore right then and there, but the pious devotees to the score hissed for silence severely and the peril passed. But at the end of the act he was recalled four times, together with the equally beloved Gilda, and a lady, whose corsage glistened like the sun in heaven, heaved a big bouquet of pink roses from a box, which Mme. Sembrich bore away, scoring the first touchdown. Later, in the famous drinking song, 'La donna e mobile,' he made his greatest hit and did it 'like a gentleman,' as a lady remarked afterward in the foyer. Her escort asked her what she meant, and she said, with wide eyes of innocent surprise 'Why, he took such liberties with the score!' To be sure he did, but he got in his high C capitally, and when the audience, whose command of the English language was quite lost by that time, shrieked 'Bis! Bis! Bis!' so insistently, Caruso sang his blackguard chansonette again and stayed in his chair throughout, tossing off his high C again at the end most nonchalantly, as though he had the whole alphabet at his command. The fact that he performed this bit of vocal gymnastics so negligently seemed to strike some of the excited old gentlemen who discussed him in the foyer. They even went back so far in their reminiscences as the legendary - or, at least, historic - Italo Campanini, and recalled how he used to take a run and a low jump before alighting on the back of the aforesaid high C. From which it might be inferred that in the minds of these veteran operagoers the Italian tenor is, somehow, a thing apart from all other tenor singers of more modern methods. But, then, the opera was Rigoletto, and that score recalls an army of splendid ghosts, albeit of an earlier and an outgrown fashion in musical expression" [The New York Sun November 24, 1903].

"The all-round evidence of a new order of things last evening gave a foretaste of even better things to come. Everything was new at the opera house last night except the opera and the audience, and the audience had new clothes and Verdi's Rigoletto was newly upholstered. Principals and chorus rejoiced in new costumes and disported themselves among new stage settings. So the night was one of prolonged novelty to the eye, while the ear to which the principal appeal was made, had to be content with the appearance of a new tenor and a new conductor. But they sufficed.

"Caruso is not another Jean De Reszke, but he is the best Italian tenor we have had since [Francesco] Tamagno, and his finished vocal method and pleasing quality of voice recall the ear-tickling Campanini. Of all tenors before and since the incomparable Jean, he is most gratefully welcomed because of his perfect intonation. Not once through the night was he at variance with the key, and he is a stranger to stage fright. Caruso is big and burly - a Jeffries [James J. Jeffries, the American heavyweight boxing champion] in physique - ungraceful in action, yet not stilted. He has an air of abandon that is fetching, sings like a big healthy boy fond of the sound of his own voice, and has a manner of caressing his tone in mezza voce....

"His baritone notes are beautifully rich, the upper register less colorful, but he sings with perfect ease and without the slightest suspicion of vibrato. The opening 'Questa o quella' was given with such ease and reservation of tone that fears were entertained for his lack of volume, but he grew in favor through the exquisite blending of his voice and perfect vocal art in the duet with Gilda, and his 'La donna e mobile' brought him a grand triumph. He sang it as it should be sung, in devil-may-care fashion, sipping his wine, tossing his cards and with striking changes of tempo pictured the changeful mood of fickle woman the song celebrated.

"The climax he made with a grand rush and a superb vocal flourish. The house rose to him, and his countrymen made the walls ring with their bravas. His was a notable performance in keeping with the exquisite work of Mme. Sembrich, whose Gilda is familiar, and the impressively tragic Rigoletto of Signor Scotti" [New York Journal November 24, 1903].

"The opera did not greatly matter. Its performance was in every way superb. It signalized the first appearance of one of the most important of Mr. Conried's new artists, one upon whom much will depend during the coming season - Enrico Caruso, who took the part of the Duke. He made a highly favorable impression, and he went far to substantiate the reputation that had preceded him to this country. He is an Italian in all his fibre, and his singing and acting are characteristic of what Italy now affords in those arts. His voice is purely a tenor in its quality, of high range, and of large power, but inclined to take on the 'white' quality in its upper ranges when he lets it forth. In mezza voce it has expressiveness and flexibility, and when so used its beauty is most apparent. Mr. Caruso appeared last evening capable of intelligence and of passion in both his singing and his acting, and gave reason to believe in his value as an acquisition to the company" [The New York Times November 24, 1903].

"In his higher register Mr. Caruso is also exceedingly effective if he chooses to be, but often he colors his tones with a peculiarly Italian nasal quality that is not pleasing to the American ear. The last act showed his lovely voice at its best, and gave promise of what his may be able to accomplish in works of greater artistic importance. 'La donna e mobile,' the Duke's famous aria, was sung with the most careful attention to phrasing and with a delightfully vigorous utterance. It had to be repeated.

"Scotti repeated his well-known and eloquent impersonation of the hunchback jester. Mme. Sembrich was again the tender and appealing Gilda, but while the famous prima donna sang in the main with beautiful effect, she was unable always to keep to the pitch in her exacting music. Louise Homer was a picturesque and vocally admirable Maddalena. These four singers gave the quartet of the last act so effectively that it was redemanded. The rest of the characters were represented to the full satisfaction of the audience" [New York Press November 24, 1903].

New Operatic Tenor Has Good Presence and Voice of Rare Beauty.

By William Armstrong

"With the arrival on the scene of Enrico Caruso last night the opera season was opened. If the world proverbially loves a lover it loves a tenor yet better....With a voice of delicious quality, a manly bearing, fervor, and many good qualities in his favor, Mr. Caruso was welcomed last night in Verdi's Rigoletto.

"In the wide range of roles that have been allotted him this season, final judgment could no more be passed upon him than upon a single fruit from a treeful.

"Those who awaited a tenor of robust development, who stands sturdily with feet wide apart and hurls top notes at the chandelier as though it were his mortal enemy were disappointed. Mr. Caruso is nothing of this kind, and so many that have proceeded have been that the fact is agreeable to chronicle.

"To tell the truth and shame the tenor has been an overworked occupation in the Metropolitan within recent seasons. To tell the truth of Caruso will be more agreeable than the task has frequently been in the case of his predecessors....

"Because of the rare beauty in the quality of his voice he is sure of a popular success in this respect, at least, the reclame that has preceded him was justified. A rarely beautiful voice it is. His use of it cannot be chanted in such unqualified terms.

"But in the duet with Mme. Sembrich last night in Gilda's garden he sang with a taste, with an artistic care and restraint that went a long way toward forgiveness of vocal transgressions. Most acceptable, too, is the fact that his voice blends delightfully with that of Mme. Sembrich, with whom he will be called upon to sing so frequently before the season is ended.

"With a hearty, genuine good-comradeship that has endeared her to New York audiences, Mme. Sembrich performed one of her graceful deeds on the fall of the second curtain. From a bunch of flowers handed her from behind the scenes during a curtain call (and it seems the rule now at the Metropolitan is that such tokens shall no longer be flung across the footlights), the singer took one and presented it to her new colleague with a hearty handshake" [New York American November 24, 1903].

After singing on opening night with a cold, Caruso cancelled his next two performances. His first Radamès in Aida was a complete triumph. The New York Press described his voice: "Any lingering doubt about its loveliness and the artistic way in which he used it were dispelled. Phrasing, management of breath, delicate gradations of light and shade - in short, all those higher elements of the art of singing - he possesses, one is almost tempted to say, in only a less degree than that masterly singer, Jean de Reszke. He can make his voice as lusciously sentimental as a cello, and again he can make it ring out with the bright color of a trumpet. He seems to be completely the master of his instrument. With exquisite sentimentality he sang 'Celeste Aida.' In the Nile scene he changed this sentimentality to irresistible and overwhelming passion. And then, in the final scene, in the tomb, he compelled his voice to speak in the very accents of despair. It was an astonishing performance. We are not used to such tenors, to such voices, and to such singing by men."

Carriage Crash at Opera

"Not but once a year does Broadway present exactly the same appearance as it did last night, the opening night of the grand opera season. For two or three blocks the wide street was packed with vehicles, both horse-drawn and horseless, ever moving and shifting from one position to another.

"Cursing cabmen yelled invectives at belated teamsters, motormen stood at their posts in surly silence waiting for the mass to open and let their cars through, flunkeys scurried to and from around the doors of the opera house, and, to make the picture complete in its confusion, dozens of bluecoats twisted in and out of the shapeless, intricate tangle of vehicles, and gave directions in commanding tones. Though there was no more confusion than in former years, it was an hour after the performance before the last operagoer was whirled away from the side entrance in his carriage." [The New York Times November 24, 1903]
Met Opening Week

Caruso as the Duke
Enrico Caruso as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, inscribed to
Max Hirsch, The Met's box office manager.
Photo: Aimé Dupont

November 23, 1903 program
November 23, 1903 program
Metropolitan Opera performance of Rigoletto, November 23, 1903

Caruso as the Duke
Photo: Aimé Dupont

Caruso as the Duke
Photo: Aimé Dupont

Caruso as the Duke
Photo: Aimé Dupont

All photos of Enrico Caruso taken in New York before
his Metropolitan Opera Debut