> PUCCINI La Boheme Beecham [CF]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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La Bohème

Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Sung in Italian
Rodolfo - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Mimi - Victoria de los Angeles (soprano)
Musetta - Lucine Amara (soprano)
Marcello - Robert Merrill (baritone)
Schaunard - John Reardon (baritone)
Colline - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
Parpignol - William Nahr (tenor)
Benoit/Alcindoro - Fernando Corena (baritone)
Un doganiere - Thomas Powell (baritone)
Sergente - George del Monte (baritone)
Columbus Boys Choir
RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham (conductor)
Recorded at Manhattan Center, New York in March/April 1956 mono
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 67750 2 2 [2CDs: 107’21"]

Beecham was a Puccini expert, no doubt about that, with over three hundred performances in theatres to his name. Composer and conductor knew one another though the relationship was far from good, with Puccini referring to him as ‘The Purge’, a thinly veiled observation of Beecham as inheritor of the Pill empire from his father Joseph. Just look at the cast list which even includes the young Corena in the minor doubling roles of the landlord Benoit and Musetta’s unfortunate cuckold Alcindoro. This fabulous recording came as a result of a sudden realisation by Beecham’s US manager that Jussi Björling, Victoria de los Angeles and Beecham would be in New York at one and the same time, in the spring of 1956. The result is an electrifying performance, recorded in eight days, the orchestral playing quite stunning and the singing thrilling. Both of the principal soloists were among the finest exponents in their day of the roles of Rodolfo and Mimi respectively, while the supporting ensemble has no weak links at all. There were formidable rival recordings which preceded it in the preceding post-war decade, such as Tebaldi’s fine Mimi partnered by Hilde Gueden as Musetta, Licia Albanese’s collaboration in concert in 1946 with Toscanini (whose vocal involvement proved irritatingly audible, but he did bring an authority to it for he conducted the premiere in February 1896), then there was one with Tagliavini, Taddei and Siepi and another with Tucker and Baccaloni, but the lists are not as uniformly star-studded as Beecham’s. What came after is another matter, for many would say that Decca’s set with Tebaldi, Bergonzi, Bastianini, Siepi, Corena, D’Angelo, all under the veteran Serafin, was the finest ever.

De los Angeles’ first offstage ‘Scusi’ after her shy tap on the door will seal your enjoyment, bringing tears to the eye and a shiver to the spine. The ensuing arias by both protagonists, the one impassioned, the other enchanting, and their climactic duet are simply outstandingly beautiful, with both at the top of their form. Act two gets a blazing start from the brass, the chorus sound rather lame until the women chastise the kids. Apart from the one solo lad who gets his ears boxed, the boys have no hint of ragazzi about them and sound as if they are on their way to sing Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge rather than taunting everyone around them, but Parpignol makes the most of his offstage cries. Once they are all out of the way we can settle back to the glorious de los Angeles, who in turn inspires all the men to sing their hearts out around her café table at Momus. No offstage hysterics from Musetta at her entry but plenty when she is seated with the unfortunate Alcindoro at the neighbouring table to Marcello, and even the chorus gets galvanised into singing as if they understand what they are singing about. Here, just before her aria, Beecham indulges in a simply huge combined crescendo and rallentando (as marked in the score it must be stated) at the orchestral climax before ‘Ma il tuo cuore martella’ - brazen but effective, even more so at the aria’s ending when, among the vocal ensemble now in full cry, he finds so many orchestral strands and subtexts worth bringing out.

You can sense the change of time, season and weather in the falling snowflakes following the abrupt start to the third act, the orchestral palette is full of colour, the chinking of distant cups toasted in the inn by the chorus, beautiful woodwind and harp playing. Then Mimi, coughing now of course, enters with sympathetic violins making full use of portamento, her scene with Marcello (sublime singing from Merrill) packed with tragic ardour and lingering sadness as her fatal illness is fully revealed. Björling’s entry announcing his intention to separate from Mimi (who overhears from her hiding place) is full of tactless immaturity, knowing as he does that she is mortally ill, while Merrill builds Marcello’s fury like a pressure cooker, trapped as he is by his vow to Mimi not to reveal her presence. Musetta’s entry completes the quartet, both pairs of lovers now in a mood a far cry from the joyous conclusion to the previous act. I defy anyone not to react to De los Angeles’ sobs, nor to the ensuing parting of the ways by soprano and remorseful tenor.

Of course there’s even more emotion to come, not least the glorious duet at the start of the final act for Marcello and Rodolfo, in which both men’s voices blend exquisitely, with Beecham pacing the ebb and flow of tempi with secure authority yet immaculate flexibility, all settling to that magical chord of C major played by strings and a pair of clarinets, but the genius of Puccini is that the lower one is the bass clarinet adding a special colour. The horseplay by the four male friends which follows is exuberant yet one senses that tragedy is never far off, and sure enough the interruption in the black key of E minor with Musetta’s announcement that Mimi is with her and seriously ill produces heartbreaking cries from Rodolfo, and a moving ‘Coat’ aria from Tozzi as Colline. The deathbed scene is simple, tragic but never sentimentalised (though it is Björling, rather than de los Angeles, whose sobs and raw emotion will now gnaw at your heart). If ever you needed to know exactly when Mimi’s heart stops beating you hear it precisely here. No, this is not over the top, but a heartfelt and sincere interpretation by a conductor who, despite his spats with the composer, adored the music, and for the purposes of this recording had the perfect cast.

Christopher Fifield

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