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
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.
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.
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
sorridenti a Mimì” is
quite unmatched by any other singer, however good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.