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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème (1896) [108:10]
Jussi Björling (Rodolfo, tenor); Victoria de los Angeles (Mimì, soprano); Robert Merrill (Marcello, baritone); John Reardon (Schaunard, baritone); Lucine Amara (Musetta, soprano); Giorgio Tozzi (Colline, bass); Fernando Corena (Benoit/Alcindoro, bass); William Nahr (Parpignol, tenor); Thomas Powell (Custom House Official, bass); George Del Monte (Sergeant)
Columbus Boychoir, RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 16-17, 30-31 March, 1-3, 5-6 April 1956, Manhattan Center, New York
Bonus Tracks: Jussi Björling sings Puccini
Manon Lescaut: Donna non vidi mai [02:17]
Royal Opera House Orchestra, Stockholm/Nils Grevillius, rec. 1948
Manon Lescaut: Ah! Manon, mi tradisce [02:31], Presto in fila … No! Pazzo son! [03:50]
Licia Albanese, Franco Calabrese, Enrico Campi, Rome Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Jonel Perlea, rec. 1954
Tosca: Recondita armonia [02:45], E lucevano le stelle [03:02]
Swedish Radio Orchestra/Grevillius, rec. 1950
La Fanciulla del West: Ch’ella mi creda [02:19]
Royal Opera House Orchestra, Stockholm/Grevillius, rec. 1937
Turandot: Nessun dorma [03:15]
Orchestra/Grevillius, rec. 1944
REGIS RRC 2075 [54:11 + 74:49]


The booklet baldly states “recorded in 1956”. Looking around the internet for more details it turned out that most of what I wanted to know was to be found on this site. I turned to a review by Christopher Fifield of an EMI reissue of the recording and to a survey by Ian Lace of the “Bohème” situation at the time of writing (2000). So thank them for the dates and location given above.

This recording was arranged in a considerable hurry when it dawned on HMV that de los Angeles, Björling and Beecham would all be in New York at the same time. There were certain links at the time between HMV and RCA so it was the latter who actually made the recording.

In those days opera recordings tended to be made in well-established places with regular teams. EMI’s series based around Maria Callas and La Scala, and Decca’s rival series based around Tebaldi with Florentine or Roman forces, are obvious examples. The process of snapping up three star artists and bunging them together to make a recording in eight days may seem in retrospect something of a blueprint for more recent developments. The performance itself, by adopting some unusual tempi for those days, probably heralded a move from “traditional” Puccini in favour of “personalized” Puccini.

I have already reviewed for MusicWeb a reissue by Naxos of the 1951 Decca recording with Tebaldi, Prandelli and Gueden, made in Rome under Alberto Erede. On the whole I think that anyone intent on getting to know “La Bohème” through a cheap reissue of a famous early LP recording would do better to get that.

Although five years more recent, the present recording, at least as transferred here, is technically inferior. The 1951 Decca is clearer, warmer and more open. This 1956 recording is a little boxy, sometimes strident and congested. Which is not to say that, away from comparisons, it is less than adequate if you are drawn to these artists.

Act One, after the opening portrait of life in the Bohemians’ garret, presents us with the two leading artists. Jussi Björling was reportedly not well at the time of these sessions. His timbre is somewhat pinched and strained, something we do not find in the earlier recordings added as a supplement. He is also curiously inert in his expression. “Che gelida manina” is spelt out phonetically, with little feeling of the burgeoning love that lies beneath it. When Mimì, halfway through “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”, asks him if he understands her, his “sì” has all the enthusiasm of a husband who, jaundiced by thirty years of marriage, comments on his wife’s new floral arrangements from behind his newspaper.

Giacinto Prandelli, on Naxos, has true Italianate warmth in his voice. He can expand thrillingly and is always attentive to the words. I have also been able to hear extracts from the later Tebaldi recording, with Carlo Bergonzi. Magnificent singing, but there is something too aristocratic about Bergonzi’s phrasing for this role. His greatness was as a Verdian.

Much has been made of the vulnerability or fragility which Victoria de los Angeles brought to certain roles, making virtue of the fact that her voice was theoretically a size too small for them. I find these arguments work better with her Madama Butterfly. There are innumerable lovely touches here. But there are times when Puccini seems to expect the singer to step out of her “fragility” and soar upwards with full, strong tone. He isn’t Massenet and at key moments the singer without sheer heft will not deliver the goods. Well as “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” begins, it fails at the climax.

Tebaldi has the heft for this, of course. Some have found her too dominating for the role. Perhaps this is true of the later recording, where Serafin’s slow tempi induce her into a more mannered approach. In 1951 her voice was in its pristine glory, and she was as attentive to the more intimate moments as to the moments of expansion. Surprisingly, it is she who makes the most of her suggestion, timid and bold at the same time, that she should come with Rodolfo to the Caffè Momus.

The earlier stages of this act are a bit noisy and bullish from Beecham. Perhaps as a result of having a mainly Italian cast under an Italian conductor, there is a conversational ease about the Erede version which seems to flow from the words themselves. Then, with the arrival of Mimì on the scene, Beecham draws the music out unnaturally. A tell-tale example takes place at the exchange “Vorrebbe? … s’accomodi un momento … non occorre”. The singers get badly ahead of the orchestra here. This is because they can hardly help enunciating their parlato phrases in natural speech rhythm, and it just doesn’t fit into what Beecham is doing. Erede keeps things moving at a more realistic pace. Erede, too, is better at finding flexibility without getting stuck. Take the climax of the act, in “O soave fanciulla”, where Mimì sings “Ah, tu sol comandi, amor!” while Rodolfo sings “Fremon già nell’anima”. Erede prepares better the orchestral crescendo so the singers can sink into their phrase, but he is also infinitely subtle in getting things moving again, slowing again, getting on again, all in the space of a few bars. Beecham tries but is less natural. Serafin was by then very old, better at slowing down than at moving on again. Twenty years earlier it would have been a different tale, no doubt.

Act Two is dominated by Musetta. Despite the haste with which the Beecham cast was assembled, some notable singers were found for the smaller male roles. For Musetta, Lucine Amara was evidently all they could get – an anonymous singer with an unpleasant top B. Hilde Gueden, for Erede, was sheer luxury. Even the whiff of a Viennese accent only adds to her coquetry. She graces her waltz with the creamiest of tones, but she also bites into her words and creates a petulant, impulsive character. The shoe episode is hilarious and her subsequent behaviour, as she ditches her elderly escort and sweeps Marcello back into her arms, all too plausible.

For Serafin, Gianna D’Angelo has always been the stumbling block for admirers of the set. Her vinegary, soubrettish voice doesn’t seem compensated, at least in the extract I’ve heard, by any sort of vivid characterization. The waltz is almighty slow, but elegant, not heavy, and might have worked with a better singer.

Beecham enjoys himself with the cocky march at the end of the act. He always was a dab hand at this sort of thing.

In Act Three Marcello comes to play a more important part. This is the one role where the Beecham set has an advantage. Robert Merrill presents a sympathetic, understanding character in his scenes with Mimì and then with Rodolfo, where 57-year-old Giovanni Inghilleri, for Erede, is not much more than bluff. Beecham’s slower tempo for the snowy opening scene is perhaps more atmospheric than Erede’s. Neither chorus is ideal here. For much of this act it is a question of swings and roundabouts between Tebaldi and de los Angeles, while Prandelli continues to impress as more inside the role of Rodolfo. A symptomatic passage is that beginning “Una terribile tosse”. The orchestral triplets, with their delayed upbeat, are resolved by Beecham with elegance, rather like a Viennese waltz, while Erede and his singers dig more deeply into the music.

Beecham comes more into his own in the last act. He has evidently established his presence with the orchestra by now and there are many little touches of phrasing and pacing in the opening scene by the side of which Erede seems a little plain. His long-drawn final scene is so deeply felt, so exquisitely expressed as to make me feel “Erede isn’t going to be able to cap that”. But in all truth I found Erede’s swifter-paced interpretation no less moving and perhaps more natural. Again, it has something to do with relating the pace of the music to the speech-rhythm of the words. Surprisingly, Beecham is more passionate with Rodolfo’s final outburst, which Erede imbues with tragic weight.

De los Angeles provides much that is exquisite here, but so does Tebaldi. Furthermore, at that great moment where Mimì leaves her frail body, so to speak, and sings with grand passion “Sei il mio amor … e tutta la mia vita”, Tebaldi has all the power to rise to the occasion. De los Angeles just isn’t up to it. It’s no use trying to justify her response with phrases like “moving fragility”. The right word is “inadequacy”.

In conclusion, then, with the minor exception of Marcello, the Naxos version is better cast, better conducted and better recorded. Neither version comes with a libretto, but Naxos has a much more detailed synopsis and a good introduction to the recording.

Oh the idiot! The twit! Call himself a critic! Doesn’t he know that the Beecham “Bohème” is one of the greatest recordings ever made of anything and is only to be spoken of in bated breath? Doesn’t he know that de los Angeles was an adorable artist and Tebaldi a boring one? Doesn’t he even know that for any self-respecting British critic, a recording conducted by Beecham is automatically better conducted than any other version?

Evidently he doesn’t.

Or perhaps he does but tried to listen with unbiased ears.

The seven bonus tracks show Björling earlier in his career, his tone firmly focused and powerful. But what a dull interpreter! Donna non vidi mai gets a bull-at-the-gate rendering while the Tosca and Turandot arias are turgid affairs, demonstrations of tone-production but no more. The aria from La Fanciulla del West is more enjoyable, maybe because we hear it less often, and it is remarkably well recorded for the date.

There are two historical “Bohème” recordings I haven’t taken into account. The Callas, like everything she does, is a case apart. The readers should know by now whether they’re Callas-people or not. For those who aren’t particularly, Mimì is not one of her roles, like Violetta or Lucia di Lammermoor, which no one should miss hearing.

I know the Toscanini recording only by a brief extract on a sampler, from the friends’ dialogue under the window to “O soave fanciulla”. The dialogue is rattled through at full tilt but with “O soave fanciulla” a different Toscanini emerges, infinitely gentle and malleable. But what struck me is that the pacing is virtually identical in the Erede recording, slowing down, picking up, slowing down again, moving on again in exactly the same places. Is Erede’s interpretation just a Toscanini clone? Well, he worked with Toscanini in Salzburg before the war. I doubt if he deliberately copied the recording but he possibly modelled his interpretation on Toscanini’s, which he would have known in its more relaxed pre-war manner.

In its day Erede’s “Bohème” very likely seemed just a “normal” piece of Puccini conducting. Since then tempi have got slower and slower, a process set in motion by Beecham. Beecham claimed to have the composer’s authority for his tempi, but so did Toscanini. They were both such outsize personalities that they probably believed Puccini had said whatever they wanted him to say. To modern ears, the Erede has all the freshness of a return to basics.

Christopher Howell 


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