Decca themselves seem to have considered this
recording as superseded by Tebaldi’s 1959 stereo remake under
Serafin. It had a brief reincarnation as a budget–label LP set,
but then the 1959 version itself became bargain-label material
and the 1951 effort looked like disappearing forever.
In view of the fact that many critics, including
our own Christopher Fifield, believe the 1959 Tebaldi/Serafin
to be the finest ever Bohème, is there any reason for buying
this earlier mono version? Well yes, there are quite a few.
Rather surprisingly, one might be the tenor.
Giacinto Prandelli (b.1914) made very few records (I reviewed
one of them recently, the
Adriana Lecouvreur with Carla Gavazzi on Warner Fonit). He
has a warm baritonal tenor in his lower register, opening out
into a rich Italianate sound on his upper notes (and, I suppose
I should point out, a minute tendency to sing flat around the
passaggio between the registers). He also essays some honeyed
soft head tones in the manner of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. He is alive
to the words and is well inside his part. In 1959 the tenor was
Carlo Bergonzi, a truly tenorish tenor, supremely secure
and even of line, elegant in his phrasing. But, while I would
not for a moment suggest that his high reputation was undeserved,
and it did indeed seem too good to be true to find an Italian
tenor who was also a fine musician, dare I suggest that the man
may have been just a little bit dull? There is more of a personal
touch to Prandelli, which brings the character of Rodolfo to life
(maybe what I mean is that Bergonzi was not supreme in Puccini
as he was in Verdi).
A definite plus point for the 1951 set is the
creamy-voiced Musetta of Hilde Gueden, far preferable to the acidulous
and sometimes ungainly singing of Gianna D’Angelo under Serafin.
The latter scores marginally with his Marcello and his Colline.
In the case of Cesare Siepi the advantage over the much less well-known
Romanian bass Raphaël Arie (b.1920) is very small indeed.
I don’t feel as negatively about the Marcello of the veteran Giovanni
Inghilleri (1894-1959) as some other reviewers, but he does sound
old for the part and there is no doubt that Ettore Bastianini
So how about Tebaldi herself? She was a remarkably
consistent artist and differences are not all that great. Between
1951 and 1959 she had refined a few points, not always in the
interests of spontaneity. Her second aria, Donde lieta uscì,
is more affected than Sì, mi chiamano Mimì;
in 1959 she has expunged, for example, the verismo-style
sobs with which she sang addio, senza rancore and maintains
a tighter control of the musical line. I’m not sure that I don’t
prefer the earlier version; her fans will in any case note that
the differences are more than sufficient to justify their having
both performances. Of course, if you want your guts wrenched you
will go to Callas, but that was never Tebaldi’s way and hers is,
I think, a great assumption in its own right.
Another difference lies in the conductors. In
1959 Serafin was 81 and his leisurely, loving transversal of the
score is too slow for some tastes. Certainly, Musetta’s Waltz-Song
gets a little bogged down, but for the most part he has the art
of keeping the music afloat. Still, the conducting could be a
reason to prefer the 1951 version. Alberto Erede (1908-2001) made
a good many opera sets for Decca in the early 1950s but thereafter
disappeared from view. He was an unusual case of an Italian with
a rather un-Italian career. He studied with Weingartner and Fritz
Busch, and before the war conducted at Salzburg and Glyndebourne.
Between 1946 and 1949 he led a short-lived New London Opera Company
and then worked regularly at the Metropolitan from 1950 to 1955.
He was later in charge of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (1958-61)
and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (1961-67) and conducted
Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 1968 – the first Italian to appear
there since Toscanini. I can find no reference to his later activities
though I believe he continued to conduct until fairly near his
death. I attended a fiery Otello which he gave with Scottish
Opera in the early 1970s and well remember his tall, rather aloof-looking
figure. The Desdemona, by the way, was a soprano who I felt sure
was destined for great things; her name was Kiri Te Kanawa … Since
Erede’s career as a recording artist had virtually ended by the
advent of stereo his work has remained in a limbo, and it may
seem strange now to speak of him in the same breath as the much
Like Arturo Basile on a number of contemporary
Cetra sets, Erede has that natural sense of narrative flow which
marks out a true opera conductor, breathing with his singers and
allowing the music to build up in long waves. Malcolm Walker’s
informative notes state that Erede’s tempi are close to those
of Toscanini in his 1946 broadcast, but I think this can be exaggerated.
Overall, Erede is faster than Serafin by just six-and-a-half minutes,
and in the specific passages where I compared them, the differences
amounted to a matter of seconds, and it was not always Erede who
was faster. Toscanini shaves a further ten minutes off Erede’s
timing. The modern tendency towards slowish Bohèmes
is said to date from Beecham, who actually comes in half-way between
Erede and Serafin. Still, over the span of an entire opera the
overall timing tells us little; the question is what the conductor
does within this framework. Erede certainly gives a greater impression
of forward movement while Serafin can sometimes seem to plod.
Both conductors have the Santa Cecilia Orchestra which was probably
the finest in Italy at that time, and has tended to be ever since.
Another matter is the recording. Clearly, the
1959 stereo set accommodates the larger climaxes with far more
ease, but it is also rather recessed. The 1951 mono is warm-sounding
with much closer recording of the voices. The gain in presence
is striking when you pass from one to the other. However, there
is also a touch of distortion in the earlier recording which may
derive from the LP pressings rather than the master tapes – which
were obviously not available to Naxos. But I don’t want to make
too much of this since the sound is good for its date, and who
knows if Decca will ever make a transfer of their own, and with
what results. If you can be happy with a good mono recording there
a number of reasons for making this the preferred Tebaldi version,
or simply for snapping it up as an inexpensive way of getting
to know the opera.
And you will be rewarded by a filler (how many
other Bohèmes have one?) in the form of the highlights
recorded by RCA in 1949-1951 and never before issued complete
outside the USA. First came the two arias for Mimì, conducted
by Trucco, followed by the rest under Cellini. The obvious interest
is in the Rodolfo of Giuseppe Di Stefano, then in his glorious
prime. His launching of O Mimì, tu più non torni
is exquisite, and with the luxury casting of Leonard Warren
as Marcello here is one item that goes better than on the complete
set. For the rest, it’s worth an occasional listen since the conducting
is not much more than adequate and Patrice Munsel’s rendering
of a chopped-down Waltz-Song sounds more like a decent audition
performance than a real interpretation. Licia Albanese’s Mimì
is a little more flirtatious than Tebaldi’s, but without great
individuality. And if you disagree, you will surely prefer either
of her complete recordings, that of 1938 when she was in fresher
voice and partnered by Gigli, or the 1946 broadcast under the
mesmerising presence of Toscanini. The recordings are at least
as good as the 1951 Decca.
The booklet contains notes about the artists
and the recording – I have several times complained about the
absence of this in the Warner-Fonit Cetra reissues. There is no
libretto but the synopsis is detailed and gives track references.