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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (1896)
Rodolfo – Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Mimì – Maria Callas (soprano)
Marcello – Rolando Panerai (baritone)
Musetta – Anna Moffo (soprano)
Colline – Nicola Zaccaria (bass)
Schaunard – Manuel Spatafora (baritone)
Benoit – Carlo Badioli (bass)
Alcindoro – Carlo Badioli (bass)
Parpignol – Franco Ricciardi (tenor)
Customs Officer – Eraldo Coda (bass)
Sergeant – Carlo Forti (bass)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Antonino Votto
rec. 20-25 August and 3-4, 12 September 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Arias:
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello
, Act I: Già nella notte densa
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Iris
, Act II: Oh, come al tuo sottile;
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen
, Act I: Parlez-moi de ma mère*
Les pêcheurs de perles, Act II: Leila! Leila!… Dieu puissant, le voilà!*
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust
, Act III: Il se fait tard, adieu!*
* sung in Italian
Rosanna Carteri (soprano)
Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
Milan Symphony Orchestra/Antonino Tonino
rec. 5 June 1957, Milan
NAXOS 8.111332-33 [79.02 + 76.23]
Experience Classicsonline

1956 was the sixtieth anniversary of the première of “La Bohème”. In that same year two celebrated recordings were made: this one and the Beecham set, generally acknowledged as a great success despite the occasional blemish in ensembles – testament to the speed at which it was recorded once its distinguished cast had been hastily assembled to record in between other engagements. This recording, however, was clearly executed with great care and affection. Nothing Callas ever recorded was ever less than painstakingly prepared – even though she never actually performed the rôle of Mimì on stage. Similarly, although Votto might not have had Beecham’s élan and charisma, he was very experienced and phrases tenderly. He brings plenty of flexible rallentandi into this leisurely account and allowing his singers time to make their points. He instantly establishes an authentic Christmas Eve ambience and at the start of Act III, the liquid flutes, haunting pizzicatos and harp create exactly the right, hushed aural image of a snow-scene; only in the more rumbustious passages does one wish for a touch of Beecham’s verve and swagger. In truth, Votto can be just a little dull and lacking in sparkle – and he also stands convicted of what “Gramophone” huffily describes as a “monstrous unwritten crescendo” at the end of Act I; guilty as charged and presumably a habit acquired in the theatre to prevent unwanted premature applause – but artistically vulgar.
 
Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration of mono LPs here is certainly wholly acceptable: distinct and slightly distant, with all the details emerging cleanly and virtually no distortion. I admit to finding my electronically reprocessed, phoney “stereo” version of the Beecham on the Membran label to be even better, but sound is not an issue in either set; the quality of the performances soon sweeps you away. If you want modern sound, the safe option is Karajan’s famous 1973 stereo recording with Freni and Pavarotti – and there are valid artistic and interpretative reasons for preferring it overall, depending on your taste.
 
I have, in the past, under-estimated the Columbia/EMI recording and this Naxos re-issue has provided an opportunity to reassess its virtues. The surprise for me is Di Stefano’s performance; he is inspired by Callas to produce his best work and is in finest voice, the only flaw being a tendency to shout his two top Cs. This incipient hardness in his tone prevents him from sounding quite as beautiful as either Björling or Pavarotti but his ardour and sincerity are great compensations; he is every inch the ardent lover, tender in the recitative and desperate in his outpourings of grief. Both he and Callas are so moving in their intimacy and restraint that they make the concluding moments of this famous tearjerker genuinely harrowing rather than histrionic or sentimental.
 
Callas is very successful in lightening her voice to create a vulnerable and loveable Mimì in Act I, but expanding beautifully, for example, into “Ma quando vien lo sgelo”. She exhibits all the artistic and vocal touches we expect from her: exquisite portamenti, wonderful variety of tone, verbal acuity and insight. For me, Act III, even more than the concluding Act, shows her at her best: the succession of duets culminating in the great quartet is what you should sample if you are not sure whether you want this set. Callas is inspired and, in turn, inspires her partners. The pathos of her utterance at such moments as “Buon giorno, Marcello … tutti qui sorridenti a Mimì” is quite unmatched by any other singer, however good. In a sense, singing the supposedly less demanding Mimì was for her like a holiday from killer roles like “Turandot”, but she brings all her customary dedication to her characterisation of the little seamstress.
 
Panerai is, as ever, in lean, incisive voice, inflecting the text sensitively and sounding very little different from his performance eighteen years later with Karajan but perhaps less inclined here to croon; the duet with Di Stefano opening Act IV works its magic triumphantly. Moffo is in her vocal and temperamental element as the “tart with a heart”, Musetta. Zaccaria is a grave and comically lugubrious Colline. The Schaunard could be better, but there are no real weaknesses in the supporting cast even if you have favourite singers in other recordings.
 
Neither the Karajan nor the Beecham version is overtaken in my affections by this set; both have marginally more warmth, casts slightly better suited to their parts, and the advantage of superlative conducting – but this version runs both very close and I would not like to be without it.
 
Ever generous, Naxos provides us with a very welcome bonus in the form of duets from a recording session of 5 June in the same year as this “Bohème”, and Di Stefano is again in superb voice. His partner, Rosanna Carteri, is somewhat forgotten today, yet she was an estimable artist. She sounds very much like Mirella Freni but has an occasional, regrettable tendency to go a little flat. This is not troublesome and particularly enjoyable are the first two items: the love duet from “Otello” and an extended excerpt from Mascagni’s neglected “Iris”. Clearly, Di Stefano, ever the over-reacher, aspired to Otello, a rôle which, if undertaken, would no doubt have accelerated his already precipitate vocal decline. Here he acquits himself admirably in the more lyrical mode of “Già nella notte densa” and the passionate cantilena of the Mascagni.
 
There is a lot of great music on offer here at a super-bargain price. Even if you already have the two front-runner recordings that I mention above, you might want to add this Naxos set to your collection. Fans of both Di Stefano and Callas will need no second invitation.
 
Ralph Moore
 

 


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