first encounters sorel and sorel Next week: George Gordon Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley
The plot was not so much Italian opera as Hollywood musical. A young man and woman are in love. She is to star in a show; he wishes to play opposite her, but he is unknown. She challenges him to audition before the composer himself; he accepts, overrides all obstacles of protocol, and performs with such stunning artistry and style that the role is instantly his. A promising stratagem, but our lover did not look the part. He was short and tubby, with an undistinguished moustache and an undesirable Neapolitan accent. It was the composer who was handsome and debonair. What our lover did have was the optimism of youth: with all the engaging audacity of a film hero, Enrico Caruso, desirous of singing Rodolfo in La Boheme, arrived unannounced one day in June 1897, in the Tuscan village of Torre del Lago, at the house of Giacomo Puccini.

He was admitted under protest. Puccini, ultrasensitive to cold, a wide- brimmed hat on his head, ushered him into a studio made stifling by a roaring fire. Perspiring from heat and nervousness, Caruso asked to sing "Che gelida manina". Puccini obligingly sat down at the piano. It took only a few bars for the composer to realise that in tone and dramatic intensity here was the perfect - the ultimate - Rodolfo. With the final high C, Puccini spun around in genuine amazement. "Who has sent you to me?" he asked. "God?"

Caruso sang Rodolfo opposite his mistress (who would bear him two sons and then leave him for the chauffeur). He later triumphed in Tosca and Madama Butterfly. As the careers of both men rose to meteoric heights, they became warm, if sometimes wary, friends. It irked Puccini that Caruso was getting rich ($100,000 a year) recording his (Puccini's) arias through that bell-shaped tin horn, to be sold on those scratchy waxed discs for which he himself as yet got nothing. He wrote to a friend that Caruso was "lazy" and "too pleased with himself". "All the same," Puccini could not help but add, "his voice is magnificent"