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
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.
precedents – Comparative reviews of four previous recordings
the year 2000 I compared
four recordings of La Bohème as detailed below and
appended an essay on the opera.
brevity, from this file I have extracted the following comparisons
The four recordings:
1) The 1956 Sir Thomas Beecham
recording (EMI Classics CDS5 56236 2) with Jussi Björling and
Victoria de los Angeles.
The 1972 Herbert von Karajan recording (Decca 4210492) with
Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.
The 1996 Antonio Pappano recording (EMI Classics 5561202) with
Roberto Alagna and Leontina Vaduva.
The 1999 Riccardo Chailly Recording (the first studio recording
of the new critical edition; edited from original sources by
Francesco Degrada) (Decca 4660702).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.