James Levine’s 1977 La Bohème
from the Metropolitan
Opera has been available for some time on DVD: 000440 073 40257 – why
do DVD catalogue numbers have to be so long? Robert Farr thought
that it provided a valuable historical perspective but that it
couldn’t stand as the sole Bohème
in anyone’s collection.
To be fair, others have been more taken with this version, even
to the extent of recommending it as the DVD recording of choice.
Nevertheless, I take RF’s point that no one version can ever represent everything that Bohème
has to offer. The new CD isn’t my only version, with Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling and Sir Thomas Beecham, in decent but dryish mono, my version of choice, and the Decca recording with Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti and Herbert von Karajan a very close rival, in much better sound. Another Levine recording – he’s something of a pluralist in this work – again with Renata Scotto, but as Mimì (EMI, 1979), features as third choice, giving me an interesting chance to see how the later 1982 version shapes up, with Renata Scotto downsizing from Mimì to Musetta, replaced in the star role by Teresa Stratas, and with José Carreras as Rodolfo.
I’m going to put the singers on the backburner for the moment. The chief appeal of this new DVD for many will be the stupendous set: a bright orange sticker on the front of the box proclaims that this is ‘Zeffirelli’s legendary 1981 Met staging’ and an excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor
proclaims the pre-eminence of the production ahead of a second, from the New York
magazine, reporting Stratas to be the ideal Mimì.
Indeed, no sooner has the curtain risen for Act I than the audience applauds Zeffirelli’s set and that for Act II receives an even bigger round of applause. Spectacle is the essence of this production of Act II, with huge crowds, stilt walkers and a military band. There is always a danger that the spectacle will steal the show and, indeed, there are times when Stratas in particular has difficulty making herself heard, but at least Zeffirelli keeps us in 19th
-century Paris and doesn’t distract us with the kind of extraneous settings which have become all too fashionable in opera since 1982.
It’s a shame that the recording is in 4:3 format. If played straight, it looks boxed in, with large black areas around it on a wide-screen television. Most HD-ready sets will allow you to set a 16:9 zoom which loses a little of the picture top and bottom – it’s called ‘wide zoom’ on Samsung – and, in this form, with upscaling if your set has the feature, the result is impressive for its age, if a little grainy. You won’t mistake it for the latest blu-ray but it won’t detract from your enjoyment of the performance. One of RF’s reservations about the earlier DVD concerned the primitive camera techniques; I think he would be much happier with the 1982 version.
Renata Scotto’s Mimì on the 1979 Levine recording is still well worth hearing – see Robert Farr’s review
of the highlights from the set on Encore – but there are moments of strain in a voice which could have made a much more secure recording of that role a few years earlier. Listening to her singing Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì
on the 1979 Levine recording alongside Stratas’s rendition reveals the undoubted superiority of the latter.
Three years later, on DVD, by then 48, she dazzles as Musetta in Act II, but chiefly by the force of her acting. The voice is still impressive but at times it becomes squally; of course, Musetta’s behaviour is squally, but the voice should not, ideally, follow suit. Nevertheless, the riotous applause at the end of the act, for Scotto as much as for anyone, is well deserved; as this presumably heralded the interval, it has to be faded out before, I imagine, going on for ever. RF praised Scotto’s acting as Mimì on the earlier DVD; here she virtually acts everyone else off the stage – no mean feat when Zeferelli has assembled a cast of thousands.
If Scotto would have been rather too old to play Mimì in 1982, Teresa Stratas, too, born in 1938, was no young thing either; this production was the last time that she sang the role. The make-up artists do their best to convince us that this is a youthful Mimì but the close-ups of the wrinkled brow tell a different story. The art of opera is to make us believe the improbable and it’s the singing and the acting, especially the former, which count in that respect and she doesn’t disappoint. That bright orange sticker on the front of the box refers to her ‘exquisitely modulated’ singing and I cannot demur. She had been singing the role since the late 1950s, so the music was well and truly in her blood.
José Carreras may have been almost a decade younger than his leading lady but he, too, was no stranger to this opera, having sung the role of the boy soprano at the age of 11 and having performed opposite Katia Riccarelli some ten years before this Met recording. Highlights from his 1979 recording with Ricciarelli and Colin Davis are available on Eloquence 468 1372; the complete set, formerly on Philips Duo, is deleted, though some dealers still seem to have copies. On that recording Carreras was in fine voice but the performance as a whole was generally thought unmoving.
In 1982 Carreras remained in good voice but there is no longer any question that his singing lacks emotion; perhaps because of the live performance, all concerned are highly involved in the action, Carreras no less than the others. RF decried Pavarotti’s acting on the earlier set; Carreras may not be in the Royal Shakespeare Company league, but he and the others get themselves dramatically into their roles.
There is no doubt that the occasion brings out a performance that could never have been achieved in the studio. The disadvantages, of course, are that the action is constantly delayed by applause after the set-piece arias, which becomes a little tiring after the first playing, and the recording is not as well balanced as a studio version. Otherwise the sound is good, especially when played through something better than TV speakers. I actually keep a DVD player connected to my main audio system because I often like to hear opera DVDs in audio only through good equipment; heard without the visual cues, the voices are slightly backwardly balanced but the general soundstage is otherwise convincingly represented.
All those rounds of applause which delay the action are well merited. The two principals sing as well as any that I’ve heard in their roles, apart from de los Angeles and Björling or Freni and Pavarotti, and they are well supported, not only by Richard Stilwell as Marcello and Renata Scotto as Musetta, the latter with the reservations about Act II, but also by Allan Monk as Schaunard and James Morris as Colline, whose aria to his old coat receives one of those well-deserved plaudits.
If the singing is a strong point, the acting is not far behind. It always stretches credulity to see Rodolfo and Mimì in plain view supposedly groping around in the dark in Act I, of course, but such things are inevitable in opera. That cinemascope set more than makes up for any lack of verisimilitude: the garret and surrounding rooftops in Acts I and IV are convincingly represented; the set for Act II, as I’ve indicated is stupendous, as is Act III, complete with genuine snow storm. Act IV, back in the garret, is, of course, inevitably sentimental, but it need not be mawkishly sentimental and over-sentimentality is avoided here: there’s no over-the-top acting and no overdone effects in the singing.
I’ve almost forgotten to mention James Levine’s contribution; it’s just so ‘right’ as to be unobtrusive. RF thought him lacking on the earlier DVD some of the characteristic strengths which he brought to Verdi; he seems to have been a fast learner in the intervening years – but he had had a good deal of practice in those five years.
The booklet is as good as any that I’ve seen with a DVD, which means that it’s less comprehensive than one would expect with a CD set. There is no libretto but there are detailed synopses in three languages and the subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish and ‘Chinese’ (presumably Mandarin) largely take its place – though I would still like to have the option of watching the original Italian and English translation simultaneously. Surely modern technology could give us that.
Of making many Bohèmes
there seems to be no end, on both CD and DVD, but the oldies are still the best: you won’t find anything much better on DVD than this new reissue. I still want to back it up with a good audio version and there’s an embarrassment of choice here, with the Angeles-Björling-Beecham on EMI and Freni-Pavarotti-Karajan on Decca heading the list. The Beecham is available inexpensively from EMI and Naxos and as a superb download bargain from Past Classics, just four tracks for less than £1 from eMusic. The Karajan was reissued for the nth
time recently, still at full price, and Len Mullenger made it one of his choices for 2008 Recordings of the Year
(478 0254 – see also Göran Forsling’s review
). At around £24, it’s more expensive than the new DVD, but it comes in luxury packaging. Levine’s 1979 recording with Scotto and Kraus offers a good bargain now on Classics for Pleasure (3677152, around £8 in the UK) but is outshone by Beecham, Karajan and the new DVD.
If cost is a factor, the 2008 re-mastering of the Karajan, including
the bonus interview, but minus the accompanying book, is available
for £15.99 as a download from passionato.com
It sounds well in good mp3. But £15.99 is not much less than the
price of the new DVD, on special offer from one dealer currently
for slightly less than that. Whatever you choose with which to
supplement it – if anything – you may buy the DVD with confidence.
It’s a strong contender in a competitive market.