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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohčme - Opera in four acts (1869) [102:41]
Rodolfo: Plácido Domingo (tenor); Mimě: Montserrat Caballé (soprano); Marcello: Sherrill Milnes (baritone); Musetta: Judith Blegen (soprano); Schaunard: Vincente Sardinero (baritone); Colline: Ruggero Raimondi (bass)
John Alldis Choir; Wandsworth Schoolboys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Georg Solti
Verdi & Puccini Duets [46:43]
Leontyne Price (soprano); Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo-soprano)
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Nello Santi
rec. 27 July-4 August 1973 (La bohčme); 21-23 & 25 July 1974 (duets), Walthamstow Town Hall, England. ADD
DUTTON 2CDLX7365 SACD [75:08 + 73:40]

This La bohčme was reviewed back in 2006 by Bob Farr, who gave it a qualified endorsement. Originally recorded in 1973 in stereo then remixed for quadrophonic issue, it has always – rightly, in my judgement – been over-shadowed by Karajan’s made the year before but that is not to say that it is by any means poor; it fields a starry-cast trio of Domingo, Caballé and Milnes standard to RCA recordings in the 70’s under a conductor whose operatic output continues to be under-valued despite the fact that his work has frequently emerged as the prime recommendation in surveys I have undertaken. Beecham’s version is the greatest rival to that miraculous Decca recording but was recorded in mono, even if its recent remastering by Pristine into Ambient Stereo has certainly boosted its desirability. However, the Dutton remastering “from the original analogue tapes” here is very successful, too, providing a rich ambience virtually as good as the best digital recordings,

Caballé ‘s singing in Act 1 is delicate and girlish – really lovely; she lightens her tone and gasps winningly when Rodolfo takes her hand. Her poised pianissimi, glissandi and portamenti are a dream and she can turn on the power as and when required, as in the climax of “Sě. Mi chiamano Mimě”, her voice gleaming to depict the Spring sun breaking through the Winter gloom. She rises to the desperation of her Act 3 conversation with Marcello, coughing and acting convincingly without sacrificing beauty of voice and manages the pathos of her Act 4 demise touchingly. This is decidedly one of her most successful recorded performances to set alongside her Aida made the following year, a period when she was perhaps in the finest voice of her career.

Domingo sings well enough in that rich, bright but generalised manner so typical of him, although he hasn’t Pavarotti’s boyish charm or vocal glamour; in “Che gelida manina”, he is clearly uncomfortable on his high C – a note he never really owned - and cannot revel in it the way Pavarotti does. Some will applaud on artistic-harmonic grounds his taking the low E rather than the customary high C as the lovers exit at the end of Act 1 – the result of Solti’s insistence upon eschewing unauthorised departures from the score – but he was probably relieved to do so and the effect is aesthetically pleasing, creating a golden glow of sound rather than a Big Finish, especially as Caballé takes the minor third from A to an exquisite ppp top C in one sweep without an intervening breath between the final two repeats of the word “Amor”. Milnes makes a big, virile Marcello, warm and sympathetic; his lover Musetta is sung by Judith Blegen, a little shrill but vivid and characterful. Raimondi is a rather lugubrious Colline, delivering a grave, restrained, vocally slightly windy “Coat Aria”.

Ensemble – so important in this opera – is good; there are some nice little touches, like the lubricious chortling from his friends when Rodolfo informs them “Siam in due” – which happens in the Karajan recording, too, but some versions neglect. Solti might not previously have conducted this opera in the opera house but his pacing is acute and energised without being too hard-driven and there is no shortage of affection in key moments such as the wistful duet for Rodolfo and Marcello beginning Act 4. Where perhaps he does fall short is in that indefinable quality of “magic” or “atmosphere”, especially in the opening to Act 3, where both Beecham and Karajan capture the essence of softly falling snowflakes in the quiet dawn; whereas with Solti, a certain element of the prosaic reminds us that this is a studio recording. The LPO plays beautifully, witness the orchestral introduction to Mimě’s swansong, exquisitely sung by Caballé in a shimmering half-voice.

The four duets were originally issued on a rather scantily-filled LP, even by the standards of that pre-CD format - a later LP issue was supplemented by a duet from each of the complete studio recordings of Aida under Leinsdorf and Mehta’s Tosca. They make an appetising bonus, especially as they feature Doming partnered with the other reigning soprano diva of the era, Leontyne Price. Santi’s four-square conducting is unimaginative but the singing is very satisfying, even if the incipient cloudiness and underdeveloped lower register in Price’s soprano sometimes mars its purity of tone. Recorded four years before his first studio version, whether Domingo’s tenor ever had sufficient pharyngeal heft to sing the entire role successfully remains debatable but here, his Otello is certainly young and sappy enough to do justice to the love music. Price is particularly vibrant and Domingo splendidly ardent in the passionate love duet from Madama Butterfly concluding this welcome release from Dutton.

Ralph Moore

La bohčme cast:
Rodolfo: Plácido Domingo (tenor); Mimě: Montserrat Caballé (soprano); Marcello: Sherrill Milnes (baritone); Musetta: Judith Blegen (soprano); Schaunard: Vincente Sardinero (baritone); Colline: Ruggero Raimondi (bass); Alcindoro: Nico Castel (tenor); Benoit: Noel Mangin (bass); Parpignol: Alan Byers (tenor); Customshouse official: William Mason (bass); Sergeant: Franklyn Whiteley (bass); A boy: Plácido Domingo III (soprano)
Verdi & Puccini Duets
Verdi: Giá nella notte densa (from Otello)
Verdi: Teco io sto (from Un ballo in maschera)
Puccini: Oh, sarň la piů bella...Tu, tu, amore? (from Manon Lescaut)
Puccini: Bimba, bimba, non piangere (from Madama Butterfly)

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