As long as there have been commercial recordings, and as long as there have been catalogs to detail them, Enrico Caruso has been a formidable force. There have been Caruso recordings on cylinders, discs and tapes. The discs have spun at 78 rpm, 45 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm. And they are tracked by a laserbeam on compact disc.
Just in time for Christmas, RCA Victor, the principal custodian of the Caruso legacy, has issued 12 CDs that encompass every surviving note the great Italian tenor recorded (60495-2-RG). More than a decade ago, RCA began but never finished a complete LP edition of Caruso's records, all digitally remastered.
Now the task is done -- and beautifully done. The set begins on April 11, 1902, with the 29-year-old Caruso's aria "Studenti! Udite!" from Alberto Franchetti's opera "Germania" and concludes on Sept. 16, 1920, with his recording of "Crucifixus" from Rossini's "Petite messe solennelle."
In between come 236 other items -- arias, songs, duets and ensembles. This is by no means all that Caruso recorded, but this is what has survived. Included are several test pressings, among them his much-touted recording of the bass aria from "La Boheme." And in four or five instances, there are alternate takes of an aria or ensemble that were never issued commercially during his lifetime.
Listening to cut after cut, one realizes why the name Caruso has become synonymous with singing. His voice literally rolls out of a speaker -- dark, warm, strong, imposing. If it is this beautiful, this stirring on records that reach back to the turn of the century, what must it have been like in person?
All who have tried to answer that question -- critics, laymen, his colleagues -- have been at a loss for words. But in every instance I have come across, those who heard Caruso described the occasion as unforgettable.
RCA's redressing of Caruso's phonographic outpouring is entirely conscionable and satisfying.
For the most part, RCA presents Caruso's records in chronological order, but happily it did not follow this plan slavishly. Musical questions frequently override chronological ones. One example is the series of discs Caruso made from "Faust."
When a scene or duet covered two or three 78-rpm sides, RCA presents them in the correct musical order rather than by the date on which they were recorded. The one instance where this was not done was the Tomb Scene from "Aida." Part two comes before part one, and for apparently no good reason.