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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (1896)
Mimi – Renata Tebaldi (soprano)
Rodolfo – Sándor Kónya (tenor)
Musetta – Laurel Hurley (soprano)
Marcello – Frank Guarrera (baritone)
Schaunard – Clifford Harvort (baritone)
Colline – Jerome Hines (bass)
Benoit – Fernando Corena (bass)
Alcindoro – Lorenzo Alvary (bass)
Parpignol – Emil Filip (tenor)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Fausto Cleva
Rec. New York Metropolitan Opera, 14 March 1964. ADD
Bonus tracks:

Georg HANDEL – Ombra ma fù (Xerxes)
Franz SCHUBERT – Ständchen (Schwanengesang)
Johannes BRAHMS – O wußt’ ich doch den Weg zurück op.63
Richard STRAUSS – Zueignung Op.10/1
Vincenzo de CRESCENZO – Rondine al nido
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO – Mattinata
TRADITIONAL – Virit már a Szarkaláb
Zoltán KODÁLY – Recruitingsong
Giacomo PUCCINI – E lucevan le stelle (Tosca)
Giacomo PUCCINI – Ch’ella mi creda (La Fanciulla del West)
Umberto GIORDANO – Amor ti vieta (Fedora)
Sándor Kónya (tenor)
Otto Seyfert (piano)
Rec. Betlehem USA, 5 February 1966. ADD
GALA GL 100.727 [2CDs:76:19 + 74:04 = 150:23]


At first I assumed that the raison d’être for this issue, a live recording from the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1964, was the Mimi of Renata Tebaldi. Not so. Tebaldi was undoubtedly a great Puccini soprano but she was not at her best here and the Hungarian tenor Sándor Kónya (who died two years ago) as Rodolfo was the star of this show. It is therefore appropriate that the substantial bonus items on the second disc are taken from a recital he gave two years later. There are plenty of recordings of La Bohème available, and if there is good reason to invest in these discs, then it would surely be for his contribution.

Although I am increasingly appreciative of the merits of live recording, live operas have more drawbacks than concerts. Stage noise and applause after big arias I can accept but the audience here was pretty intrusive, ruining Mimi’s entry in Act I with wild applause and suffering from a bad case of premature ejaculation at the end of each act. Furthermore there was more aural evidence of consumption in the stalls than on the stage. The recording is barely passable for 1964, being quite variable in clarity and balance, with some distortion evident, particularly in Acts II and III. It is also very one-dimensional (surely it was in mono although the booklet doesn’t confess), and light in the bass. Perhaps none of this would matter if the performance was really special but, in my view, it falls well short of greatness.

Tebaldi is disappointing, particularly in the first act when she was not well caught by the microphones. By contrast, Kónya was in excellent voice throughout although his "Che gelida manina" does not eclipse Björling’s for Beecham. Tebaldi improved as the night went on but paradoxically as Mimi becomes more ill. Vocally they peaked in the farewell at the end of Act III and generally I warmed to this performance more as it went on. The other singers were adequate or better but Fausto Cleva in the pit seems dull to me.

Competition in this field is considerable and Tebaldi’s Mimi must surely be better heard on other recordings (at least two of which are available on Decca and Naxos). Beecham’s recording is, for me, the reference point in this work and there is nothing here that comes close to that level of inspiration. I would probably have enjoyed this in the opera house on the night (the audience certainly did) but it wouldn’t do for repeated listening.

The bonus items mix opera and lieder by several composers and are worth hearing for the quality of Sándor Kónya’s voice and his heartfelt, musical singing. Again, he transcends the recording, which is rather worse than in the opera. There is almost as much extraneous background noise as on an average 78 (hard to believe this was 1966), a complete dropout at 1’10" on track 14 and a fidgety audience that seems to have been crowding the performers. Otto Seyfert accompanies well but the piano sounds like the one we had at home in the 1960s. Kónya was at his best in the operatic items but, unfortunately, his Ständchen from Schubert’s Schwanengesang also sounds operatic and had me rushing for an antidote (Peter Schreier). It could also be said that Puccini accompanied on the piano is the equivalent of low alcohol lager.

Presentation is about par for the course for a budget issue with brief information about the opera and lead singers. There is no libretto or synopsis and no information about this particular production. I won’t be making shelf space for this set but it’s not for room 101* either.

Patrick Waller

* A reference to a British Comedy TV programme hosted by Paul Merton where guests are invited to discuss their worst nightmares which are then deposited in Room 101

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