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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
La bohème (1896)
Mirella Freni (soprano) – Mimi; Luciano Pavarotti (tenor) – Rodolfo); Elizabeth Harwood (soprano) – Musetta; Rolando Panerai (baritone) – Marcello; Gianni Maffeo (baritone) – Schaunard; Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass) – Colline; Michel Sénéchal (tenor) – Benoit; Alcindoro; Gernot Pietsch (tenor) – Parpignol; Hans-Dietrich Pohl (bass) – Customs official; Hans-Dieter Appelt (bass) – Customs sergeant
Schöneberger Sängerknaben; Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin
Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, October 1972
Italian libretto and English, German and French translations enclosed
Includes bonus CD: Mirella Freni in conversation with Catherine Bott
DECCA 478 0254 [54:37 + 55:46]
Experience Classicsonline

"Acclaimed as one of THE GREATEST OPERA RECORDINGS OF ALL TIME", says a sticker on the back cover of this issue. Words like ‘greatest’, ‘classic’ and legendary’ are over-used in discussions of recordings from the past but in this case they are justified. I remember a rapturous review in Gramophone back in 1973 and having almost ten years earlier bought the ‘classic’ Beecham recording and being something of a sceptic, I decided that the praise was excessive. It can’t be that good, I decided. But when I eventually got to hear the Karajan I realized that the reviewer – Edward Greenfield I believe – wasn’t so wide of the mark. I have returned to it on several occasions through the years and each time I have had the feeling that this one is special. Still it is to some other versions I have turned most frequently and also bought when they were reissued on CD: Beecham of course, with los Angeles and Björling, Serafin with Tebaldi and Bergonzi and also Thomas Schippers with the young Mirella Freni and Nicolai Gedda. I have also found a lot to admire in the Cetra recording from the early 1950s, conducted by Santini and with Rosanna Carteri and Ferruccio Tagliavini – the latter the closest to Beniamino Gigli in voice as well as style. Erich Leinsdorf on RCA with Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker, though not quite competitive, shouldn’t be overlooked either.

La bohème is in a way a collective opera and the sum of the parts is often more important than the individual achievements but it is around Mimi and Rodolfo the drama circulates and those two roles are essential. Of all the Mimis mentioned above there are two that stand out as ideally fair, warm, frail and innocent: Victoria de los Angeles and Mirella Freni. All the others have there good moments and all are first class singers with classy voices but none of them can challenge my two favourites. A good Rodolfo has to be youthful, ardent, warm and sensitive, besides tossing off the high C in Che gelida manina with brilliance and elegance. Björling fulfils most of these requirements even though he is a bit stiff; Bergonzi is slightly less brilliant but is on the other hand more flexible; Tagliavini is almost as perfect but from Gigli he also inherited that tear in the voice that makes him more melodramatic; Gedda has all these attributes in abundance and intelligence and taste to match but is more Nordically cool than Italianate hot-blooded – a criticism that sometimes has been levelled against Björling as well; Pavarotti, finally, has sometimes been accused of just skimming the surface of his characters. In every other respect he qualifies with knobs and on this recording he is uncommonly human and sensitive. In many ways this is perhaps his best contribution to a complete opera on records. What I personally can feel as a drawback is that his tone sometimes becomes coarse and glaring but he compensates that with plainly heavenly soft singing, without being lachrymose.

From the above analysis we can generate a shortlist, consisting of Beecham, Schippers and Karajan. I regret to have to exclude Serafin, since his reading is one of the finest and Tebaldi possibly the most glorious Mimi, but she is no weak, pneumonic seamstress, she is more the managing director of the dressmaker’s workshop where Mimi might work. Otherwise Serafin has a supporting cast to challenge most of the other sets: Bastianini, Siepi and Corena versus Merrill, Tozzi and Corena for Beecham as Marcello, Colline and Benoit/Alcindoro. Karajan has Panerai, Ghiaurov and Michel Sénéchal – the latter’s tenor just as expressive as Corena’s bass – and Gianni Maffeo is by far the best Schaunard. Moreover Elizabeth Harwood is match for any of the other Musettas. Schippers has a good all-Italian supporting cast but they are not quite up to the competition.

This leaves us with Beecham and Karajan. The Beecham recording was arranged on very short notice with a pick-up orchestra in New York, when HMV/RCA realized that the right singers happened to be available. Everything is not impeccable and the recording – in mono only – wasn’t among the best even when it was new. Karajan in his then regular Berlin venue, the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, had his well-trimmed Berlin Philharmonic and a technical all star staff: Ray Minshull, James Mallison, Gordon Parry, James Lock and Colin Moorfoot – who beats that? His is also a stupendous recording with tremendous power and wide dynamics when the BPO lets loose but also the softest possible silken strings and delicate woodwind in the many lyrical passages, everything registered with the utmost sensitivity.

All right. This seems to indicate that Karajan wins hands down, but what about the conducting? More than one critical eyebrow was raised when the Beecham set was released more than fifty years ago. Eccentric, impossibly slow, was heard from one camp while the opposite side maintained for the first time all the beauty and sensualism in the score was brought out and Beecham himself stated that this was what the composer wanted; he had discussed these matters with Puccini himself. Karajan, it should be said at once, is no sprinter either and in many places he indulges in the sentiment so intensely that the music almost comes to a stand still, most obviously so in the third act where Donde lieta usci is heart-rending almost beyond the limit and the final pages of the act even slower – but so wonderfully tense. This is magical conducting and the maestro is here the puppet-master who knows exactly which strings to pull and how much. The most remarkable is that in spite of so tight reins the soloists manage – or are allowed – to create real characters. Panerai – since many years a favourite of Karajan’s – is a slightly boisterous but flexible Marcello: the opening scene with Pavarotti sets the tone for the whole performance. Mirella Freni, so lovely on the Schippers set ten years earlier, is just as fine here and Pavarotti was always at his best when singing opposite the friend of his childhood. He is so warm and caring in the first act and in the third and fourth he surpasses anything I have heard of him on records.

There are some sound effects to heighten the atmosphere: Benoit of course knocks when he comes and slams the door when leaving and in the fencing scene in the last act we hear how the combatants move back and forth across the stage. The realism is stunning.

This recording is released in 96kHz-24-bit remastered sound to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Puccini. It is also a centenary tribute to Herbert von Karajan and the presentation is certainly luxurious. The two discs come in a 300+ pages hardback book with articles about the work, this recording, Puccini, Karajan, James Lock on recording with Karajan, an obituary on Pavarotti, Pavarotti on singing La Bohème, a long essay by James Jolly on Mirella Freni and Mirella Freni on working with Karajan, which consists of extracts from the bonus CD where Mirella Freni talks to Catherine Bott. There are also biographies on the other singers, synopsis and libretto and the book is lavishly illustrated with session photos. A real deluxe issue in other words.

For once the text on the back cover sticker is no hype. This is one of the greatest opera recordings of all times.

Göran Forsling


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