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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème. Opera in four acts (1896)
Mimi: Licia Albanese, soprano
Musetta: Tatiana Menotti, soprano
Rodolfo: Beniamino Gigli, tenor
Marcello: Afro Poli, baritone
Colline: Duillio Baronti, bass
Schaunard/The Baron: Aristide Barrachi, baritone
With: Nello Pallai and Carlo Scattola
(including solo recordings by Licia Albanese)
La Scala Chorus and Orchestra/Umberto Berrettoni
CD transfer from a 1938 75 rpm recording
Naxos Great Opera Recordings series, 8.110072-73. 2 CDs. [CD 1: 73.34, CD 2: 58.23]
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However high our expectations may be, a fifty-three-year-old recording will demand considerable accommodation in terms of audio fidelity from today's listeners. Predictably, therefore, this Bohème betrays its age, and there is little even so experienced a production manager as Ward Wilson can do to hide the fact. Nevertheless, it is probably as close as we are ever likely to get to a Bohème that justifies its "historical" tag, and to sample the qualities that made such voices as Gigli's and Albanese's legendary well beyond their own lifetimes. The most serious casualty of relatively primitive recording techniques is, as usual, the orchestra, though, even here, the vitality of Berrettoni's interpretation (recorded at the Teatro Regio, Turin) is wonderfully impressive. More important than any technological shortcomings, however, is the opportunity to hear a Bohème that - though in some quarters it might now be considered "old fashioned" - is vivid and committed. Do today's productions of what is, in some respects, little more than a sentimental and rather mawkish love story equal the passion - not to mention vocal splendour - of Gigli's Rodolfo and Albanese's Mimi? Is Tatiana Menotti's Musetta a little over the top? The jury may disagree on such matters but, on convincing evidence, this ADD release is well worth considering as an impressive performance because of, rather than in spite of, its age, especially at budget price.

The high jinks of the opening reveal not only great singers, but also believable, full-blooded characters with individual personalities, and by the café scene we are emotionally as well as musically involved. The well-known set pieces between the poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi are acknowledged show-stoppers, and who will deny the principals the relish with which they use their vocal mastery to bring to life what might otherwise now be little more than operatic war horses? As brilliantly handled by Berrettoni, it also comes as something of a surprise to discover just how important the crowd scenes in Acts I and II are, in preparing the audience for the final Act in which Mimi "takes an unconscionable time a-dying". Yet it is probably here that the differences between this pre-war Bohème and the general run of more recent performances are most conspicuous. The voices remain in full control, but Gigli's - and to a lesser extent Albanese's - approach occasionally leads to an uncomfortable forcing of voices and tempi that does little to convey the tenderness and pathos of Puccini's closing pages.

It would be a pity of this remarkable Bohème should be regarded as of interest only to dedicated opera buffs. It has much to do with the reasons why Puccini's tear-jerker has proved durable for more than a hundred years.

If confirmation of Albanese's amazing technique and versatility is needed, 29.26 minutes of arias from Manon Lescaut, Butterfly, Turandot and less-well-known works by Domenico Scarlatti, Bellini, Falvo and Buzzi extend this attractive set to a generous playing time of 132.27.

Roy Brewer

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