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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème

Renata Tebaldi (Mimì), Giacinto Prandelli (Rodolfo), Hilde Gueden (Musetta), Giovanni Inghilleri (Marcello), Fernando Corena (Schaunard), Raphaël Arie (Colline), Piero de Palma (Parpignol), Melchiorre Luise (Benoit/Alcindoro), Ildebrando Santafé (Sergeant), Coro e Orchestra dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Roma/Alberto Erede
Recorded July 1951 in the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome
First issued as Decca LXT 2622-3
Also highlights (Che gelida manina, Sì, mi chiamano Mimi*, O soave fanciulla, Quando m’en vo, Donde lieta uscì*, Dunque è proprio finita? In un coupè? ... O Mimì, tu più non torni, Sono andati?) with the following performers:
Licia Albanese (Mimì), Giuseppe di Stefano (Rodolfo), Patrice Munsel (Musetta), Leonard Warren (Marcello), George Cehanovsky (Schaunard), Nicola Moscona (Colline), RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini, Victor Trucco*
Recorded 31.3.1949, 21.12.1950, 23-24.3.1951 in the Manhattan Center, New York City
First issued as RCA Victor LM-1709
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110252-53 [2 CDs: 76:22, 66:46]

Decca themselves seem to have considered this recording as superseded by Tebaldi’s 1959 stereo remake under Serafin. It had a brief reincarnation as a budget–label LP set, but then the 1959 version itself became bargain-label material and the 1951 effort looked like disappearing forever.

In view of the fact that many critics, including our own Christopher Fifield, believe the 1959 Tebaldi/Serafin to be the finest ever Bohème, is there any reason for buying this earlier mono version? Well yes, there are quite a few.

Rather surprisingly, one might be the tenor. Giacinto Prandelli (b.1914) made very few records (I reviewed one of them recently, the Adriana Lecouvreur with Carla Gavazzi on Warner Fonit). He has a warm baritonal tenor in his lower register, opening out into a rich Italianate sound on his upper notes (and, I suppose I should point out, a minute tendency to sing flat around the passaggio between the registers). He also essays some honeyed soft head tones in the manner of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. He is alive to the words and is well inside his part. In 1959 the tenor was Carlo Bergonzi, a truly tenorish tenor, supremely secure and even of line, elegant in his phrasing. But, while I would not for a moment suggest that his high reputation was undeserved, and it did indeed seem too good to be true to find an Italian tenor who was also a fine musician, dare I suggest that the man may have been just a little bit dull? There is more of a personal touch to Prandelli, which brings the character of Rodolfo to life (maybe what I mean is that Bergonzi was not supreme in Puccini as he was in Verdi).

A definite plus point for the 1951 set is the creamy-voiced Musetta of Hilde Gueden, far preferable to the acidulous and sometimes ungainly singing of Gianna D’Angelo under Serafin. The latter scores marginally with his Marcello and his Colline. In the case of Cesare Siepi the advantage over the much less well-known Romanian bass Raphaël Arie (b.1920) is very small indeed. I don’t feel as negatively about the Marcello of the veteran Giovanni Inghilleri (1894-1959) as some other reviewers, but he does sound old for the part and there is no doubt that Ettore Bastianini is better.

So how about Tebaldi herself? She was a remarkably consistent artist and differences are not all that great. Between 1951 and 1959 she had refined a few points, not always in the interests of spontaneity. Her second aria, Donde lieta uscì, is more affected than Sì, mi chiamano Mimì; in 1959 she has expunged, for example, the verismo-style sobs with which she sang addio, senza rancore and maintains a tighter control of the musical line. I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the earlier version; her fans will in any case note that the differences are more than sufficient to justify their having both performances. Of course, if you want your guts wrenched you will go to Callas, but that was never Tebaldi’s way and hers is, I think, a great assumption in its own right.

Another difference lies in the conductors. In 1959 Serafin was 81 and his leisurely, loving transversal of the score is too slow for some tastes. Certainly, Musetta’s Waltz-Song gets a little bogged down, but for the most part he has the art of keeping the music afloat. Still, the conducting could be a reason to prefer the 1951 version. Alberto Erede (1908-2001) made a good many opera sets for Decca in the early 1950s but thereafter disappeared from view. He was an unusual case of an Italian with a rather un-Italian career. He studied with Weingartner and Fritz Busch, and before the war conducted at Salzburg and Glyndebourne. Between 1946 and 1949 he led a short-lived New London Opera Company and then worked regularly at the Metropolitan from 1950 to 1955. He was later in charge of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (1958-61) and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (1961-67) and conducted Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 1968 – the first Italian to appear there since Toscanini. I can find no reference to his later activities though I believe he continued to conduct until fairly near his death. I attended a fiery Otello which he gave with Scottish Opera in the early 1970s and well remember his tall, rather aloof-looking figure. The Desdemona, by the way, was a soprano who I felt sure was destined for great things; her name was Kiri Te Kanawa … Since Erede’s career as a recording artist had virtually ended by the advent of stereo his work has remained in a limbo, and it may seem strange now to speak of him in the same breath as the much better-known Serafin.

Like Arturo Basile on a number of contemporary Cetra sets, Erede has that natural sense of narrative flow which marks out a true opera conductor, breathing with his singers and allowing the music to build up in long waves. Malcolm Walker’s informative notes state that Erede’s tempi are close to those of Toscanini in his 1946 broadcast, but I think this can be exaggerated. Overall, Erede is faster than Serafin by just six-and-a-half minutes, and in the specific passages where I compared them, the differences amounted to a matter of seconds, and it was not always Erede who was faster. Toscanini shaves a further ten minutes off Erede’s timing. The modern tendency towards slowish Bohèmes is said to date from Beecham, who actually comes in half-way between Erede and Serafin. Still, over the span of an entire opera the overall timing tells us little; the question is what the conductor does within this framework. Erede certainly gives a greater impression of forward movement while Serafin can sometimes seem to plod. Both conductors have the Santa Cecilia Orchestra which was probably the finest in Italy at that time, and has tended to be ever since.

Another matter is the recording. Clearly, the 1959 stereo set accommodates the larger climaxes with far more ease, but it is also rather recessed. The 1951 mono is warm-sounding with much closer recording of the voices. The gain in presence is striking when you pass from one to the other. However, there is also a touch of distortion in the earlier recording which may derive from the LP pressings rather than the master tapes – which were obviously not available to Naxos. But I don’t want to make too much of this since the sound is good for its date, and who knows if Decca will ever make a transfer of their own, and with what results. If you can be happy with a good mono recording there a number of reasons for making this the preferred Tebaldi version, or simply for snapping it up as an inexpensive way of getting to know the opera.

And you will be rewarded by a filler (how many other Bohèmes have one?) in the form of the highlights recorded by RCA in 1949-1951 and never before issued complete outside the USA. First came the two arias for Mimì, conducted by Trucco, followed by the rest under Cellini. The obvious interest is in the Rodolfo of Giuseppe Di Stefano, then in his glorious prime. His launching of O Mimì, tu più non torni is exquisite, and with the luxury casting of Leonard Warren as Marcello here is one item that goes better than on the complete set. For the rest, it’s worth an occasional listen since the conducting is not much more than adequate and Patrice Munsel’s rendering of a chopped-down Waltz-Song sounds more like a decent audition performance than a real interpretation. Licia Albanese’s Mimì is a little more flirtatious than Tebaldi’s, but without great individuality. And if you disagree, you will surely prefer either of her complete recordings, that of 1938 when she was in fresher voice and partnered by Gigli, or the 1946 broadcast under the mesmerising presence of Toscanini. The recordings are at least as good as the 1951 Decca.

The booklet contains notes about the artists and the recording – I have several times complained about the absence of this in the Warner-Fonit Cetra reissues. There is no libretto but the synopsis is detailed and gives track references.


Christopher Howell

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