ENRICO CARUSO: Arias and Songs by Verdi, Halévy, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Flotow, Ponchielli, Leoncavallo, and Rossini.
Enrico Caruso, tenor, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Gottfried Rabl, cond.

RCA/BMG 69766 (F) (ADD) TT: 65:54
JUSSI BJOERLING:  Opera Arias by Donizetti, Verdi, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer, Flotow, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Puccini.
Jussi Bjoerling,
tenor, Symphony Orchestra and Royal Symphony Orchestra/ Nils Grevillius, cond.
Naxos 8.110701 (B) (AAD) TT: 78:00
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"It is like a dream fulfilled.” That is the claim of Robert Werba, who is credited with “Project-Concept and Artistic Supervision” of RCA’s “Caruso 2000.” The “dream” is one long held by opera fans—to reproduce the voice of the greatest of all tenors in something approaching modern sound. RCA’s approach in “Caruso 2000” essentially involved a two-step process. First, the company employed computer technology to remove the rather tinny orchestral accompaniments found in Caruso’s acoustic recordings. Then in May of 1999, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Gottfried Rabl, provided new, digitally-recorded accompaniments for the Caruso originals.

Perhaps “dream” is an apt metaphor for this project, because there is a surreal atmosphere about much of the listening experience. Despite all of the technical efforts on RCA’s behalf, the end result still sounds like vintage tenor recordings (magnificent vintage tenor recordings, to be sure) superimposed onto a modern orchestral acoustic, although not a particularly incisive or detailed one.

Such an artificial result would be sufficient for me to disqualify it from serious consideration. But, there are other problems as well. Caruso is often characterized as the first modern tenor. And it is true that if one compares Caruso’s recordings to those of such contemporaries as Fernando de Lucia and Alessandro Bonci, his work emerges as, for want of a better term, “objective.” By that, I mean that with some notable exceptions, Caruso’s recordings present a narrower spectrum of dynamics, tempo fluctuation, and rubato than what may be found in the discs of de Lucia and Bonci.

Nevertheless Caruso was a descendent of the freer approach favored by artists of the 19th century. While his application of rubato was not as liberal as that featured in the recordings of de Lucia and Bonci, it was still greater than that favored by most artists of our time. And so conductor Rabl and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra—artists accustomed to modern performance style—were expected to collaborate after the fact with a vocalist whose artistic sensibilities are as far removed as the almost eighty years that have elapsed since his death. Not surprisingly, the relationship between Caruso his new-found accompanists is often tenuous, and rarely exhibits the kind of symbiosis to be found in a true artistic collaboration.

In a rather disingenuous gesture, RCA includes a “comparison track”—Caruso’s legendary 1907 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.” The recording, with modern accompaniment, comprises track 13 of “Caruso 2000.” The “comparison track” (number 17 on the disc) purports to be the original, acoustic version. The purpose of the “comparison” is, of course, to demonstrate the marked superiority of the “Caruso 2000” version over its original. And, the “comparison track” is rather abysmal, chock full of surface noise and lacking sufficient presence. What RCA does not mention is that it, along with such companies as Pearl, Nimbus and Naxos, have in recent years issued remasterings of Caruso discs that put this “comparison track” in the shade. In fact, I would heartily recommend those reissues over “Caruso 2000.”  “Caruso 2000” does include many of the tenor’s finest recordings. And, if you insist on a modern orchestra as accompaniment for Caruso’s voice, this disc is for you. Otherwise (and until a real time machine comes along), the original recordings are the best way to experience this incomparable artist.

By contrast, the Naxos Historical issue featuring the magnificent Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling is exemplary. The transfers of Bjoerling  recordings made between 1936 and 1948 are by Mark Obert-Thorn, one of the true artists in this field. Bjoerling's  resplendent voice emerges with impressive warmth and detail in a collection that, as in the case of “Caruso 2000,” offers many of the artist’s greatest discs. At a budget price, this is certainly affords an excellent opportunity to explore the legacy of one of the handful of greatest tenors of the 20th century.

K.M.(October 2000)