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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) La Bohème (highlights)
Act I: Non sono in vena – Oh! Sventata, sventata! – Che gelida manina – Si, Mi chiamano Mimi – O soave fanciulla; Act II: Quando men vo soletta – Marcello un di l’amò – Qual dolore, qual bruciore! – La Ritirata; Act III: Marcello, Finalmente – Ebbene, no. Non lo son – Che! Vai? – Dunque è proprio finite – Che facevi? Che dicevi?; Act IV: Sono andati? – Che avvien? – Madonna benedetta
Barbara Hendricks, sop (Mimi), José Carreras, ten (Rodolfo), Gino Quilico, bar (Marcello), Angela Maria Blasi, sop (Musetta), Richard Cowan, bass-bar (Schaunard), Federico Davià, bass (Alcindoro), Francesco Ellero d’Artegna, bass (Colline)
Choeur et Maîtrise de Radio France
Orchestre National de France/James Conlon
Recorded in the Grand Auditorium, Radio France, Paris, in May 1987
WARNER APEX 2564 61510-2 [49:18]

La Bohème (1896) was Puccini’s fourth opera and his first great success. In fact "great" is not a strong enough word, since it went straight to the top of the popularity list and has remained there ever since. The reason is not difficult to see. The story about the four Bohemians in Paris and more specifically the love story between Rodolfo and Mimi goes directly to the heart. And so, in a secondary place, does the one between Marcello and Musetta. The sharp contrasts between the light-hearted artists’ lives and the pangs of love and finally the tragedy with Mimi’s death is like life itself. But of course it is Puccini’s music that makes it so unforgettable. To many people the famous scene between Rodolfo and Mimi that ends act I, culminating in the duet O soave fanciulla epitomizes opera as a phenomenon.

In a way a highlights disc of La Bohème is an impossibility, since the whole opera is one long highlight, but Warner have here done the best of this impossible task by choosing long sections from each act, so even if there are, in total, 17 tracks, what we have here is the final pages from each of the four acts. Between them they include almost all the most well-known "pieces". The only missing items are the tenor-baritone duet O Mimi tu più non torni that opens the last act and Colline’s "Coat aria" from the same act. Since the total playing time of the disc is less than 50 minutes they could very well have been included. Actually the full act could have been included, thus making the disc an even better proposition. Apart from that I can only applaud the concept, since the problem with highlights discs is that as soon as you are beginning to get involved a set-piece is finished (or even worse, faded out) and then we jump to the next piece. Here we get enough time to feel the atmosphere and follow the action, the development of the characters.

As for the recording, this is the soundtrack for a film, made in the late 1980s. It coincided in time with José Carreras falling ill with a serious blood disease, from which he fortunately recovered and was able to resume his career. But he was not able to take part in the actual filming and there was a lot of publicity back in the 1980s when the young tenor Luca Canonici stepped in at very short notice (a matter of a few hours) and acted the part of Rodolfo, and so getting an auspicious start to his own career, without singing one single note. He was quite a good singer in his own right and I bought his recital disc (on Erato) which was issued not long after this. He had a light lyrical voice hitting even the repeated high Ds in Tonio’s aria from The Daughter of the Regiment with ease. I saw the film and thought he was a good-looking and very able actor and at the time that I would have preferred him to sing the part too, since Carreras at this stage in his career was strained, loud and unsubtle. The re-acquaintance with the soundtrack was more positive than I had expected. Yes, Carreras is strained and his highest notes are mostly shouted with that widening vibrato that is pretty close to a wobble, but he can be subtle too: he fines down his voice to the softest of pianissimos, sometimes close to a Bing Crosby croon. His well-known intensity and projection of the text make this a touching interpretation of the part. In fact, when I went back to his Philips recording of La Bohème with Colin Davis, made almost ten years earlier when he was just past 30, he sounds almost as strained although with a more even voice production. In the end of the love duet he doesn’t follow Mimi up to the high note but goes down instead, ending on an exquisite soft note in half voice, just as it should be but all too seldom is. Full marks for that!

The Mimi is Barbara Hendricks and to me hers is not a Mimi-voice at all, rather a Musetta with her glittering top notes. But her portrayal of the tuberculous seamstress is surprisingly successful. She is in exceptionally fine voice and sings with considerable feeling. Mimi’s first act aria is delivered in long phrases, much of it in piano and pianissimo but when she opens up at the climaxes she is impressively powerful. We also get her third act aria, Donde lieta usci, although the track listing doesn’t say so. But track 12 starts with Rodolfo singing Che! Vai? ("What! Going?") as a response to Mimi’s Addio! and then follows the aria, starting with the words "To the home that she left ..." And this aria is also very well executed. At the modest price this disc is worth acquiring for Miss Hendricks’s contribution alone. She may not be in the same league as the late Victoria de los Angeles or Renata Tebaldi, to my mind the two greatest Mimis on disc, but still definitely admirable. The other soprano, Angela Maria Blasi, who actually has a Mimi-voice, sings a good although not exceptional waltz-aria in the second act. The fourth main character, Gino Quilico, has a good baritone voice, used to good, maybe a little anonymous, effect in the third act dialogue with Rodolfo, but bereft of the fourth act duet he doesn’t get much opportunity to make his mark.

James Conlon leads his French forces in a middle-of-the-road performance. There is a booklet with a short synopsis and some comments. As I have indicated there are better versions to be had, and I definitely recommend first time buyers to get a complete La Bohème, (Beecham with de los Angeles and Björling, and Serafin with Tebaldi and Bergonzi are both available at mid-price) but as a complement for comparison, which is always fascinating, this one is a better way of spending a fiver than I would have thought, especially for Barbara Hendricks’ contribution. A pity that Warner didn’t give us another 30 minutes of music when the space was available.

Göran Forsling

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