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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924).
La Bohème. Opera in 4 Acts.
Mimi, Mirella Freni (sop). Rodolfo, Umberto Grilli (ten). Musetta, Lucia Cappellino (sop). Marcello, Mario Sereni (bar). Schaunard, Otello Borgonovo (bar). Colline, Alessandro Maddalena (bass).
Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro La Fenice, Venice. Cond. Oliviero De Fabritiis.
Recorded Live 2nd November 1970.
MONDO MUSICA MFOH 10111 [2CDs: 51.46+51.27]


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One of the pleasures for the opera lover in recent years has been the emergence, on various labels, of legitimate issues of live performances, from the past thirty years or so, originating in Italian provincial theatres and often with casts of wholly native speakers. By provincial, I mean not from La Scala in Milan rather than Rome, where the standard Italian administrative nightmare left the main opera house closed for much of that period. I also specify legitimate because various illicit recordings have appeared on LP and CD, often with execrable sound, the result, I suspect, of hidden recorder and microphone. This issue is a first class example of the newer genre; obviously using tapes from a more ‘official source’, combined with 20 to 16 bit mastering for CD, to give an excellent quality of sound in respect of aural perspective and capture of voices and orchestra. The downsides of live performances are intrusive applause and ‘theatre cuts’; both are present here. Although the applause is quickly faded it does disturb the dramatic frisson of a live occasion. The cuts amount to a total of about 8 minutes of music, mainly in acts 1, 3 and 4.

The major pleasure of this performance is being able to hear singers who never made it onto major studio recordings alongside those who did. The Rodolfo, Umberto Grilli, is a true tenor with a rather throaty sound. Except for too many sobs when Mimi dies, he sings with sensitivity and some sense of phrasing but is not able to colour his tone nor bring much sense of character to the part. His ‘che gelida manina’ (CD 1 tr 5) is musical, but as soon as Freni enters with her ‘Mi chiamano Mimi’ (tr 6) its obvious what her potential lover lacks in the vocal stakes. Of course this is the juxtaposition of the great with the merely adequate or even good. Freni colours her tone and invests phrases with such meaning that her Mimi jumps out of the speakers and wrenches at the heart. This recording comes between her studio recordings under Schippers (1964 for EMI) and Karajan (1972 for Decca). In the former she sounds somewhat too young and innocent whilst in the latter she is, as here, sheer magic! Mario Sereni, also the Marcello on the 1964 recording, sounds distinctly older than on his studio self, indeed too old, with a hollow hole in the middle of the voice. The Musetta is clear toned, expressive, tuneful and vibrant, whilst the Colline is rather throaty in farewell to his coat (CD2 tr.6 part). The street urchins, singing their own language, give an added impetus and vibrancy on their appearance in act 2.

On the rostrum De Fabritiis is sensitive to the music whilst giving support to his singers allowing them time for expression and phrasing. The booklet has interesting essays on La Bohème and its libretto, a synopsis and an essay on the history of La Fenice, (like La Scala it premiered five of Verdi’s operas) all in Italian and English. I add a grumble about the sparse tracking; 9 and 7 respectively for the two discs is distinctly stingy. A sticker indicates that some part of the proceeds are in aid of the re-building of the lovely (an understatement) ‘La Fenice’ which, in typical Italian administrative manner still looks to be some years away.

Robert J Farr

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