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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Boheme - opera in four acts - Highlights
Rodolfo - Rolando Villazón (tenor); Mimi - Anna Netrebko (soprano); Marcello - Boaz Daniel (baritone); Musetta - Nicole Cabell (soprano); Schaunard -  Stéphane Gegout (baritone); Colline - Vitalij Kowaljow (bass); Alcindoro - Alfredo Mariotti (tenor); Benoit; Alcindoro Tiziano Bracci 
Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, Munich, Philharmonie in Gasteig, Bavaria. April 2007
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7474 [54.44]
Experience Classicsonline

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 interpretations of Mimi at least once. Likewise all the great tenors of the period recorded Rodolfo. Gigli’s interpretation can be heard on Naxos and also Tebaldi’s first, ethereal, Mimi on Decca. Competitors were blown out of the water by the last minute 1956 New York recording with Jussi Björling and Victoria los Angeles conducted by Beecham (EMI). Although only recorded in mono this set overshadowed later stereo rivals of considerable merit such as Decca’s 1959 re-make with Tebaldi as Mimi. There, Bergonzi is a match for Björling in terms of elegance and tonal beauty as Rodolfo. In the 1960s both RCA, who had a stake in the Beecham recording, and EMI, 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 technically superb recording it remains a firm favourite of mine. This 1972 recording has recently been reissued in 96kHz-24-bit remastered sound to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Puccini. My colleague in his review of the reissue also surveyed the best of the many La Bohemes on record and suggested that this was not only high in the rankings of the opera itself, but one of the greatest opera recordings of all time. It is a sentiment I share. Any La Boheme I listen to on record is measured against it.
Having set the parameters for my comparison, I must remember I am not reviewing the complete set from which these extracts are taken. That has already been done by a second colleague who also compared other performances on record (see review) whilst coming to the view that this latest recording justified its place in the pantheon.
The extracts start with Mimi’s arrival at Rodolfo’s garret (tr.1). Their tentative ‘getting to know you’ is nicely sung and well represented in the orchestra as rising emotion and young blood flows. This leads into that wonderful sequence of Puccini’s musical creativity that starts with Che gelida manina (tr.2), as Rodolfo feels Mimi’s cold hands and tells her about himself. This followed by her reciprocal Si, Mi chiamano Mimi (tr.3) and their love duet O soave Fanciulla (tr.4). In Che gelida manina and throughout this performance and in so many of his performances, Villazon always seems to be at full throttle vocally. His tonal beauty is to be admired here, as is his phrasing. But when the pressure is on, there is nowhere else for his voice to go and he pushes his tone. He sounds as if he is singing at, not to, Mimi. Villazon does, however, finish the aria on a soft descending note of beauty and sings more softly in Rodolfo’s duet with the rather gruff and four-square Masetto of Boaz Daniel (tr.8). It was not long after this performance that Villazon withdrew from public performance for vocal recuperation. I hope his rest and rethink has been beneficial, his stage and vocal acting are rare virtues among tenors on the world stage as Domingo approaches the end of a long career.
Anna Netrebko’s Si, Mi chiamano Mimi is not as gently and affecting in tone and phrasing as I expect of Mimi, a young, shy, virgin. In the opening she tends to over-sing using too much voice for my taste. In the second part of the aria she justifiably opens out. In this aria, and Mimi’s act 3 D’onde lieta usci, Netrebko has moments of great tonal and expressive beauty far too often marred by rather indistinct diction and poor endings to the Italian words. These are both areas where Freni and Tebaldi, native Italians, score in their versions. Netrebko is far better in the second part of Si, Mi chiamano Mimi where she caresses the phrases nicely. In the love duet itself there is too much vocal competition between soprano and tenor rather than affection or expectation. Yes, Puccini’s chording is complex, but they do not need to sing over it.
The extract La commedia …Quando men vo (tr.5) includes Nicole Cabell’s singing of Musetta’s Waltz song. She sings this party-piece with conviction and good colour. There is plenty of flighty characterisation though somewhat marred by indifferent diction and a touch of shrillness at the top of the voice. Of the others, I was impressed by Vitalij Kowaljow’s farewell to his coat (tr.9). In the finale, Villazon’s reaction to Mimi’s passing, left me dry-eyed, not a state this old irascible critic can guarantee from a good theatre performance even by voices far inferior to those here.
I was brought up on the edict that if you were going to do a job, do it properly. Well, I do not consider fifty-four minutes worth of Puccini’s superb score is a proper job. There is much more music that could and should be present, some of which could have highlighted Bertrand de Billy’s idiomatic contribution to the proceedings. Likewise the accompanying booklet is also short measure being all arty presentation and little function into the bargain; in fact not a bargain at all - this is full price! The opening page of the booklet shows a well dressed and extravagantly made-up and dressed Netrebko, looking like a vogue model, at a table with Villazon who is looking a right scruff with designer stubble and no tie. Elsewhere, amid the photos of a staging, it was a concert performance not a staging that is recorded here it should be noted, there is a track-listing and a track-related synopsis, the latter in English, German and French.
I cannot always be bothered to listen through all the student frolics at the start of act one of La Boheme. Despite owning the complete version, I often listen to highlights of the Karajan recording with Freni and Pavarotti for pure pleasure. I regret to say that the Decca disc runs to only sixty minutes (Decca 421 425-2). My colleague finds the complete recording more convincing and a justifiable addition to the catalogue. On the basis of what I hear on the present DG disc I do not share his enthusiasm.
Robert J Farr


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