opinions have been divided concerning Erich Leinsdorf’s conducting,
both in the concert hall and in the opera house. Efficient but
cold, erratic, metronomic in the bargain, inspirational; these
are just a few remarks that come to mind. Austrian-born but
early moving to the US he was for some time Arturo Toscanini’s
assistant and that should be credential enough for being a suitable
conductor of La bohème. After all, Toscanini had led
the premiere in 1896 and must have been able to pass on valuable
knowledge of the score and the composer’s wishes. Toscanini’s
own recording of the opera, made more than fifty years after
the premiere is still the fastest version committed to disc,
while Sir Thomas Beecham’s legendary recording from 1956 is
the slowest, unless Bernstein’s DG version beats him. Sir Thomas
also claimed first-hand knowledge since he had discussed the
score in detail with the composer. In both cases time tends
to change memory. In the end there is no objective truth to
interpretation, other than that the conductor has to be true
to his own reading, his own conviction.
known the Beecham for more than forty years and the marginally
later Serafin - also on the slow side - for quite some time
too, I have a predilection for unstressed Bohèmes. Timings
show that Leinsdorf generally is somewhat faster but I never
got the feeling that he was rushed. He is flexible enough and
lenient with his singers - or maybe the other way around. As
a whole this is a well paced performance that should be to many
opera lovers’ taste. Of course Puccini injects some doses of
saccharin, but the reading rarely becomes lachrymose, apart
from Richard Tucker’s excessive sobbing in Mimi’s death scene.
The result is uncannily similar to laughs and while that can
often be a natural reaction to deep grief it robs the tragic
end of some of its solemnity. Honestly, though, Björling’s grief
on the Beecham set is not much better.
was recorded in 1961 in three-track sound. Now in SACD mode
we are in for a stunningly realistic sonic experience with wide
dynamics and pin-point detailing in both orchestra and on stage.
Producer Richard Mohr, at least during these early stages of
stereophonic recording, revelled in sound effects, sometimes
annoyingly prominent on repeated hearing. Nevertheless they
go some way towards simulating a real stage performance. The
balance is slightly to the advantage of the orchestra but not
nearly as much as on some Solti recordings of the same era.
The touchstone for any recording or performance is the second
act with all its simultaneous activity. Here Leinsdorf excels
in Toscaninian precision and the concluding parade with trumpets
and drums is more lively and more atmospheric than either of
the two main contenders of roughly the same age: Beecham on
EMI and Serafin on Decca. The chilly morning at the tollgate
in act three is also frosty enough to make you shudder in your
favourite chair and wish you had a fireplace nearby.
Victor, as it was then, has gathered a fine cast of singers,
most of them regulars at the Met at the time. Some of them also
took part in the Beecham recording: Merrill, Tozzi and Corena.
The latter also sang on the Serafin set, as he did on most other
sets of the period. They are still in good shape: Merrill’s
nut-brown baritone both warm and intense; Tozzi having lost
some of the sonority during the intervening years but still
able to deliver an inward Vecchia zimarra in the last
act; Corena the sure-footed comedian as Benoit, the landlord
in act one. It’s a pity he wasn’t also allotted Alcindoro in
act two, as he was on both the Beecham and the Serafin – Giorgio
Onesti doesn’t make much of an impression and should have been
given the customs officer’s role as he was on the Serafin set.
Costa is a lively and charming Musetta, warmer of voice than
Serafin’s Gianna d’Angelo and vocally more attractive than Beecham’s
Lucine Amara, who is however a good actor, especially in the
last act. Philip Maero does what he can with Schaunard’s part
but he hasn’t enough sap in his voice to make him more than
the usual stuffed shirt.
Rodolfo Richard Tucker turns in one of his best recorded performances.
He can sometimes be dull and uninterested as he was on the RCA
Traviata, also with Moffo and Merrill, or over-sentimental
as in a few other cases. Here he sings beautifully and expressively
with an especially lovely O soave fanciulla. The “soave
fanciulla” is of course Anna Moffo. At this stage of her career
she was probably the most “soave” soprano in the business with
that creamy sound and the exquisite pianissimo tone that came
naturally to her. She sounds young, which the formidable Tebaldi
for Serafin never does. Victoria de los Angeles for Beecham
is of course on an interpretative level of her own but Moffo
is not far behind.
clear first choice for any standard opera is often difficult
to give. La bohème has had a number of distinguished
recordings: Albanese-Gigli, Tebaldi-Campora; Carteri-Tagliavini,
de los Angeles-Björling, Tebaldi-Bergonzi and Freni-Gedda -
all have their merits and to this number the present Moffo-Tucker
version can confidently be added. Even the DG recording from
the early sixties has the young Renata Scotto as Mimi as well
as Tito Gobbi as Marcello but it is ruled out through Poggi’s
insensitive Rodolfo. From later years Karajan with Freni and
Pavarotti has many advocates and there are a number of others.
For my money it is still the Beecham with the unique rapport
between de los Angeles and Björling, now in the Great Recordings
of the Century series on EMI. I greatly admire the Serafin with
Bergonzi; almost on a par with Björling and excellent supporting
singers, but especially for Anna Moffo’s ravishing Mimi the
Leinsdorf set now also occupies pride of place. The set comes
with reprints of the original liner notes from 1961 by Francis
Robinson and Richard Mohr plus a synopsis. The libretto can
hearty welcome to this 45-year-old recording, coming up fresh
as paint in this latest incarnation.