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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Boheme - Opera in four acts (1869)
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica based on ‘Scènes de la vie de Bohème’ by Henry Murger.
First performed at the Teatro Regio, Turin, 1 February 1869
Rodolfo, Placido Domingo (ten); Mimi, Montserrat Caballé (sop); Marcello, Sherrill Milnes (bar); Musetta, Judith Blegen (sop); Schaunard, Vincente Sardinero (bar); Colline, Ruggero Raimondi (bass); Alcindoro, Nico Castel (ten); Benoit, Noel Mangin (bass)
John Alldis Choir; Wandsworth Schoolboys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Georg Solti
rec. Walthamstow Town Hall, England. 27 July-4 August 1973. ADD
With CD Extra containing libretto with English, German and French translations available via CD-Rom drive with systems requirements of Windows 98 SE or higher, 64MB of Ram, CD ROM drive
RCA RED SEAL MASTERWORKS OPERA SERIES 82876 70784 2 [51.44 + 51.22]
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One of the most popular operas in the repertoire, La Boheme has been very fortunate on record. All the great divas of the second half of the twentieth century have set down their Mimi interpretations at least once. Likewise all the great tenors of the period recorded Rodolfo. Gigli’s can be heard (Naxos) as well as Tebaldi’s first, ethereal, Mimi (Decca). Competitors were blown out of the water by the last minute 1956 New York recording with Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles (Beecham, EMI). Although only recorded in mono that set overshadowed later stereo rivals. These included Decca’s 1959 meritorious re-make with Tebaldi as Mimi. Bergonzi proved a match for Björling in terms of elegance and tonal beauty. In the 1960s both EMI and RCA who had a stake in the Beecham recording, made stereo versions that made few waves. Decca, keen to get Karajan back in their studios for a recorded opera, set him up with his Berlin Phil and their star young tenor, Pavarotti, for a recording of the opera made in Berlin in October 1972. The performance tempi and portamento owe as much to the conductor as to the composer, but with Mirella Freni a magical Mimi and a good all-round cast in a superb recording it remains a firm personal favourite.

Throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s, until they committed too much finance to developing a rather hair-brained playback method for quadraphonic sound, RCA were very busy in the studios building up an enviable repertoire particularly of Italian operas. They had the strong male duo of Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes on their books and an excellent relationship with Montserrat Caballé who had made a memorable series of recital discs of rare bel canto and early Verdi arias for them as well as complete opera recordings (review). With the Erich Leinsdorf no longer in the frame they looked for a star conductor to make a competitive Boheme. In 1963, during their association with Decca, RCA had ‘borrowed’ Solti for their Rome recordings of Rigoletto and Falstaff. They turned to him even though he had not at that time conducted the work in the opera house.

Caballé and Domingo were in London in July 1973 to record Boito’s Mefistofele for EMI. Caballé then took a day off to give a private recital for the British Royal family at Leeds Castle before meeting the rest of the cast at Solti’s home the following day. There the conductor ordered them to put away their own scores and use those of the Ricordi Edition he provided. They were told to forget all the old slovenly routines and traditions they were used to. At the recording sessions a proper act 4 was set down first, after which Domingo and Caballé were in despair about the rigidity of Solti’s tight-reined interpretation. They pleaded with the veteran producer to intervene. He did so and an uneasy modus operandi ensued whereby the singers were allowed a little more license to expand their phrasing.

Even without the foregoing information, taken from Caballé’s somewhat eulogistic biography by Pullen and Taylor (Gollancz 1994), the tensions of the recording come out in the performance, sometimes to dramatic benefit, at others less so. After a tentative start to Mi chiamano Mimi (CD 1 tr. 10) when the Diva, queen of mezza and sotto voce singing, lightens her tone to sound rather over-girlish and in doing so has a moment of uneven legato, Caballé gives a considerable performance and interpretation. Her best singing comes with Rodolfo in Donde lieta usci (CD 2 tr. 7) whilst even under Solti’s rigidity she breathes sotto voce pathos in Sono andante as she recollects her earlier life with her lover and dies (CD 2 trs. 16-17). Domingo is less than sensitive in his Che gelida manina (CD 1 tr. 10) singing at, rather than to, Mimi; he hectors rather than woos her. However, in the duet O soave Fanciulla CD 1 tr. 13) he is more gentle in tone and phrasing whilst Caballé finishes on a pianissimo top C without breaking breath from the preceding phrase. Elsewhere Domingo’s singing is secure and either virile or sensitive as befits the sentiments of the moment. Sherrill Milnes as Marcello sings with freedom and expression throughout, whether in angst at Musetta’s antics (CD 1 tr. 17) or in counselling Rodolfo (CD 2 tr. 5). Ruggero Raimondi as Colline sings a steady and eloquent full-toned farewell to his overcoat (CD 2 tr 14) and Judith Blegen, who didn’t get too many recording opportunities, is a Musetta characterful and ample of tone (CD 1 tr. 18). The recording is clear and well balanced.

The professionalism of four of the principal singers, who provided the backbone of many Italian opera recordings in the 1970s and later, saves this performance from being the disaster it might have been given the fraught nature of the relationships. Whilst not challenging the most sympathetic and admired recordings it is by no means even in the bottom half among the extensive alternates. Fans of any of the principals can gainfully listen.

Via the enhanced CDs a full libretto can be accessed using a PC. The booklet synopsis is not easy to read and, given the unused space on the pages, would have benefited from the use of a larger font size. The date of the recording is given vaguely as 1974. I give the exact 1973 dates above.

Robert J Farr



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