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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohème – opera in four Acts (1896) [107:14]
Rodolfo - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Mimì - Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano)
Musetta - Lucine Amara (soprano)
Marcello - Robert Merrill (baritone)
Schaunard - John Reardon (baritone)
Colline - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
Parpignol - William Nahr (tenor)
Benoit/Alcindoro - Fernando Corena (baritone)
Un doganiere - Thomas Powell (baritone)
Sergente - George del Monte (baritone)
Columbus Boys’ Choir
RCA Victor Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 16-17, 30 March; 1-3, 5-6 April, 1956, Manhattan Center, New York
XR Remastering Ambient Stereo
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO164 [53:43 + 53:31] [RMo]

The EMI issue of this set was hailed by my MWI colleague Christopher Fifield in his 2002 review as having “the perfect cast” and I included it in my recent and last opera survey as one of the two most-recommendable-by-far recordings of Puccini’s perennially popular masterwork. The original mono sound was always good, if a little congested, but obviously its reincarnation in remastered Ambient Stereo on the Pristine label, executed with Andrew Rose’s habitual skill and taste, can only be warmly welcomed as yet another inducement to hear this serendipitous recording. He really opens up the aural landscape – which is especially noticeable on headphones. Having said that, I can understand why some listeners might remain faithful to the clarity and immediacy of the mono sound, preferring it over the richer, more “upholstered” stereo processing; it’s a question of taste.

It might be “perfectly cast”, but it is not technically perfect; there are moments in the first Act where the lack of rehearsal time is reflected in the cast getting ahead of the orchestral beat and there is more enthusiasm than accuracy when the boys in the attic run riot. With regard to that casting, too, Some might even argue, too, that despite the claims for perfection the casting, just occasionally, at climactic points, de los Ángeles lacks the spinto heft to deliver, but she finds plenty of passion in her exchange with Marcello at the beginning of Act 3 and “Addio senza rancor” duet with Rodolfo at the end, and the tender pathos of her characterisation of Mimì is so moving that it would be churlish to complain about such minor flaws when so much else is wonderful. Some might be disappointed that unlike Pavarotti, at the end of the love duet concluding Act 1, Björling takes the low E instead of joining his Mimì on a high C, especially as she clearly finds it a bit of stretch, but it does preserve Puccini’s harmony as originally written. We talk of the two principals’ virtues but Robert Merrill’s Marcello is a joy throughout, beautifully acted and vocalised, matching, if not excelling, Panerai for Karajan. The great duet with Björling opening Act 4, “O Mimì, tu più non torni”, is an opera-lover’s dream.

The street urchins are a bit polite but there are otherwise lots of delectable details to savour, from John Reardon’s splendidly foppish English-accented Italian while telling the parrot story, Corena’s richly comic landlord and harassed Alcindoro, to Tozzi’s rich-voiced Colline. Lucine Amara – the only principal singer in this cast still with us at 92 - is a pert, slightly shrill-voiced Musetta. Beecham lavishes affection on the score – occasionally perhaps to excess – but the sense of fun in the ensemble, especially for such a hastily assembled project, is palpable.

Ralph Moore

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