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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La Bohème - Lyric drama in Four Acts (1895) [105:28]
Mimi … Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Rodolfo … Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Marcello … Boaz Daniel (baritone)
Musetta … Nicole Cabell (soprano)
Schaunard … Stéphane Degout (baritone)
Colline … Vitalij Kowaljow (bass)
Benoît, Alcindoro, Un doganiere … Tiziano Bracci (bass)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Kinderchor des Stadttheaters am Gärtnerplatz
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, Philharmonie im Gasteig, April 2007
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4776600 [52:36 + 52:52] 


Experience Classicsonline

Puccini’s La Bohème - first performed in Turin in 1895 - has fared well on record and this new de Billy recording with the exciting teaming of Netrebko and Villazón compares well with the competition.

Before getting down to a detailed assessment of this new DG album, I thought it might be interesting to review some earlier recordings – please scroll down if you don’t want to do so.

The precedents – Comparative reviews of four previous recordings 

In the year 2000 I compared four recordings of La Bohème as detailed below and appended an essay on the opera. 

For brevity, from this file I have extracted the following comparisons and conclusions: 

The four recordings: 

1) The 1956 Sir Thomas Beecham recording (EMI Classics CDS5 56236 2) with Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles. 

2) The 1972 Herbert von Karajan recording (Decca 4210492) with Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti. 

3) The 1996 Antonio Pappano recording (EMI Classics 5561202) with Roberto Alagna and Leontina Vaduva. 

4) The 1999 Riccardo Chailly Recording (the first studio recording of the new critical edition; edited from original sources by Francesco Degrada) (Decca 4660702).

Björling makes a fine virile Rodolfo. What superb artistry and voice – pleasing, youthful timbre, perfect control and natural expressiveness. Pavarotti, in great form, delivers all one would expect of him. He might, however, be thought overly dramatic for some tastes. As good as Roberto Alagna is in the newer recordings - especially, and understandably, with his wife Angela Gheorghiu - he is overshadowed by these two giants. 

Victoria de los Angeles's Mimi is simply ravishing, her phrasing and sense of line is immaculate and how she can tug at the heart strings! Mirella Freni is also very impressive, subtle yet passionate with a silken vocal line. Her first and third act duets with Pavarotti are shattering.

Amongst the other singers, I was especially impressed with: Elizabeth Harwood’s Musetta on Karajan's recording. Harwood is excellent - saucy and coquettish and really waspish in her subsequent vitriolic exchanges with the irate Marcello (a staunch Rolando Panerai on this recording). Two Marcellos strongly impress: Simon Keenlyside on the Chailly set and Thomas Hampson on the Pappano. Nicolai Ghiaurov on the Karajan set is particularly appealing, as the otherwise stoical Colline, when he decides to bid farewell to his treasured overcoat. 

All the conductors provide warm and sympathetic accompaniments for the singers with Beecham and Chailly adding little extra felicities. Karajan's Berlin orchestra adds that bit more intensity and passion, and their playing is simply glorious.

I ranked Beecham and Karajan in joint first place and I would favour each depending on my mood. If I wanted a more natural, slightly more restrained yet moving reading I would go for Beecham. If I needed more passion and a really sumptuous and theatrical account then I would have to plump for Karajan. If I was sent to a desert island and told I could only have one recording, then it would have to be Beecham. Of the two newer recordings, I preferred the Chailly.

And so to the new DG recording: 

The opening of Act I is full of youthful exuberance and moves along at a cracking pace, maybe a littler too fast for my taste. I miss Beecham’s and Karajan’s little orchestral felicities that created such a realistic atmosphere of chill in that Parisian garret and the evocation of the crackling of Rodolfo’s manuscript in the fire. Villazón’s Rodolfo and Boaz Daniel’s portrayal of Marcello’s youthful joy and boisterous banter convincingly surmount their deprivation. Stéphane Degout is mordantly witty as the musician Schaunard rescuing his friends with food and wine earned by him in creating music for a parrot. The baiting of the unfortunate landlord Benoît - a posturing Tiziano Bracci - raises a smile too. The famous Act I love scene is touchingly heartfelt. Villazón and Netrebko bring to it a freshness, and spontaneous sincerity so that it is almost like hearing it anew. Their timbre is sheer beauty to the ear; Villazón all loving compassion and Netrebko innocently responsive yet sweetly vulnerable in her yielding. 

Act II ‘In the Latin Quarter’. The bustling, hedonistic atmosphere around the crowded Café Momus with its street vendors, urchins and bands is vividly evoked. If Act I is Mimi’s, then Act II is Musetta’s and here Nicole Cabell is wonderfully coquettish and waspish. In her famous ‘Waltz Song’, she beguiles and teases poor Marcello, her erstwhile lover, into anger and despair before he submits to her wiles. De Billy nicely evokes the penetrating chill of the February dawn that opens Act III at one of the toll-gates of Paris and the early morning traffic of carters, milk maids and carters before the entrance of a cold and starving Mimi, estranged from Rodolfo but seeking news of him. The rawness of the emotions of the two sets of lovers – Rodolfo and Mimi and Musetta and Marcello – their jealousy, anger remorse and compassion is so palpable and compelling. This is felt with great intensity as Rodolfo remembers Mimi’s terrible cough and her fortitude even in the glacial atmosphere of his room, in Mimi’s resolve to return to her lonely nest and in her plea to Rodolfo to keep her pink bonnet as a souvenir of their love. The quartet that closes the third act is quite sublime. The whole of this recording’s final act, set in the artists’ garret as in Act I, is intensely moving commencing with the poignancy of Rodolfo’s and Marcello’s recollections of the highs and lows of their love-lives. Musetta’s entrance with news of Mimi’s advanced illness, interrupts the four friends’ horseplay most dramatically. Nicole Cabell affectingly underlines Musetta’s essential humanity and generosity as she cares for Mimi and organizes the menfolk. Bass, Vitalij Kowaljow as Colline is dour as he bids goodbye to the coat he plans to sell for Mimi’s medicine. That said, he is not as memorably expressive as Nicolai Ghiaurov on the Karajan set. The heart-stopping final love scene between Rodolfo and the expiring Mimi is again awe-inspiring. Only the hardest-hearted would be able to resist a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye at the close of this most moving of Bohèmes. 

I defy anybody not to be moved by the ardency and sincerity of Netrebko’s and Villazón’s singing, supported by a fine cast. It is like hearing this old favourite anew. This album compares favourably with the best of all previous La Bohème recordings.

Ian Lace 



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