Can anyone authoritatively vouch for the dimensions and character of Enrico Caruso's voice?
The answer, it would seem, is no -- except for those who heard him live. He was the first recording artist of Jagger-like celebrity. But we have learned since then of the tricks that amplification can play on the documentation of a musical event. Furthermore, all his recordings, before his death in 1921, were made by the pre-electronic acoustic method that was then about to be replaced.
The occasion for such speculation about the most celebrated operatic voice of the century was an NBC special that aired on Saturday night, "Live From Studio 8H: Caruso Remembered." The singer drafted for the dubious distinction of reminding us of Caruso was Placido Domingo. The orchestra performing with him was the New York Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta.
The questionable premise of the show, reliving Caruso, and the passing circumstances of the event -- Domingo on an off night -- conspired to give us something short of perfection. Domingo's high notes in "Celeste Aida" seemed pressed and his normal ease and breadth seemed lacking in important parts of the evening.
We can afford to be confident that Caruso -- himself the victim of vocal strain from time to time -- would normally have sounded better than this. But if we can make such assumptions about Caruso, one can make the same with greater assurance, familiar as he is, about Domingo.
The point is not that Domingo is the right singer, if you must, to single out as the heir to Caruso. I recall a television show roughly 25 years ago in which Dorothy Caruso, the tenor's widow, was asked to say which tenor that day sounded most like her husband and she replied without batting an eye that it was Jussi Bjo rling. Today the answer would almost certainly be Domingo (Pavarotti is significantly lighter in tone). And the wisdom of giving him an hour and a half on Saturday night in prime time is irrefutable.
What is refutable is the sense of resting on the name of Caruso as the selling point. Evoking the past has been the problem with this series of live concerts from NBC's Studio 8H from the beginning. NBC's glory as a patron of the arts was the sponsorship of Arturo Toscanini from Studio 8H for many years. The first of these live concerts from 8H was a tribute to Toscanini, with Mehta conducting the Philharmonic. NBC seems unable to present a major figure from the present without usurping from the past, and from the RCA record catalogue, as the selling point.
Presenting classical music in prime time is certainly a good cause. But on Saturday night, splendid as the performers were, it seemed frivolous and dispensable. Without some fresh ideas one wonders how long it will continue.