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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) La bohème (1896)
Mimì – Bidú Sayão (soprano)
Rodolfo – Richard Tucker (tenor)
Musetta – Mimi Benzell (soprano)
Marcello – Francesco Valentino (baritone)
Schaunard – George Cehanovsky (baritone)
Colline – Nicola Moscona (bass)
Benoît – Salvatore Baccaloni (bass)
Alcindoro – Salvatore Baccaloni (bass)
Parpignol – Lodovico Oliviero (tenor)
Customs sergeant – Lawrence Davidson (bass)
Metropolitan Opera Association Chorus and Orchestra/Giuseppe Antonicelli
rec. Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 7, 14 and 21 December 1947
Synopsis in English, French and German SONY 19075810742 [48:38 + 46:02]
Sony have dug up this 70-year-old recording from the archives, first issued on 78s and a couple of years later transferred to LPs, released on 6 June 1949 and thus in all likelihood one of the earliest LP operas. The sound cannot measure up against later efforts but it is very good for its age, acoustically dry but there is quite some brilliance and a lot of orchestral details can be heard in spite of the backward balance which favours the voices. The conductor, Giuseppe Antonicelli, was primarily active in many of the leading houses in Italy but he also spent a couple of years at the Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted a total of 158 performances. His tempos are rather brisk without a feeling of rush and the playing of the MET orchestra cannot be blamed. The cast is composed of Metropolitan regulars of the period, which guarantees a high level of professionalism but a certain lack of personality. Francesco Valentino and George Cehanovsky as Marcello and Schaunard, both mainstays at the Metropolitan, are both solid singers but others have given more spirited performances on records. Nicola Moscona, another mainstay, is sonorous and noble as the philosopher Colline and sings his coat aria in the last act with a lot of emotion while Mimi Benzell, who after her opera career devoted herself to Broadway musical, TV-shows and nightclub performances, isn’t the most charismatic of Musettas but sings a decent Quando me n’vò in the second act. Salvatore Baccaloni is of course in his element in the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro and doesn’t overact the comic elements as he sometimes could do.
But it is for Richard Tucker’s Rodolfo and Bidù Sayão’s Mimì the recording is worth a listen. Tucker, here in the beginning of his 30-year-long career at the MET, is in glorious form, brilliant and lyrical and it is a youthful Rodolfo he portrays. There is a great deal of good-humoured business in the first act, but the drama ignites when Mimì, the lovely Bidù Sayão, arrives, and together she and the inspired Tucker make a memorable first act finale. Tucker’s Che gelida manina is lyrical and impassioned and he delivers a glowing high C effortlessly and ends the aria with the prescribed diminuendo. Ms Sayão sings her aria conversantly and charmingly, not unlike Victoria de los Angeles on the legendary Beecham recording with Jussi Björling. And Tucker even challenges Björling with his glorious singing. Tucker recorded the role again in 1961, opposite Anna Moffo’s marvellous Mimì, and he was very good then also, but here, fourteen years younger, he is even better. Bidù Sayão’s sometimes rather frail tone suits the role perfectly and makes great impression in the third act confrontation with Rodolfo, and in the moving death scene her identification with the role is magically visualized.
There are many valuable recordings of La bohème from the period after WW2: Toscanini and Beecham (both conductors had met Puccini and Toscanini even conducted the premiere in 1896), Santini with Rosanna Carteri and Ferruccio Tagliavini, Erede with Renara Tebaldi and Giuseppe Campora, Votto with Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano, Serafin with Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi, Leinsdorf, mentioned above and Schippers with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Gedda. All of these are generally more recommendable than the present set but for the singing of Richard Tucker in particular, but also the lovely Bidù Sayão, it is worth adding to the collection.