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Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

A review from Gramophone, February 1985 (Tosca, 411 871-2, is also reviewed here)

Both these sets appeared when Tebaldi was at the height of her powers, and they enshrine interpretations that have, in some respects, particularly vocal security and Italianate bite, hardly been surpassed by her successors, though Freni has come close to doing so in her readings. In other ways, the Boheme outstrips the Butterfly. In the first place, Serafin is a far superior conductor to Molinari-Pradelli (indeed superior to all rivals), in the second Bergonzi is a more sensitive and stylish Puccinian tenor than del Monaco. What is more the better-recorded Boheme has a cast that is Italian-orientated (d'Angelo's Musetta and Siepi's Colline, in particular, are fine), and with no weak points. Indeed, in comparing available versions on the BBC's Building a Library series not long ago, I found myself vitually preferrings this version even to the much-acclaimed 1957 Beecham version (HMV SLS896, 11/74), because, all-round, it seemed to me the warmer, more idiomatic recording, so that its refurbishment is much to be welcomed; I would like to see it now digitally re-mastered on CD by Decca.

On the other hand, I don't feel the Tosca deserves that treatment. In historic terms it isn't quite comparable with the 1953 Callas/de Sabata (HMV SLS825, 3/73), being more slackly conducted, and wanting that classic set's theatrical frisson. London is a nasty, sadistic Scarpia, but not an over-subtle one. In the Decca catalogue the Karajan version with Price, di Stefano and Taddei, also on mid-price (5BB123, 1/73), is, to my mind, a better buy, and better recorded—but the Boheme should be in every collection.
AB

A review from Gramophone, February 1990

Quite small points can colour your reaction to a recording of La boheme. "Cerchi" ("look for it") says Mimi of the hastily pocketed door-key in Act 1, and in Tebaldi's authoritatively firm voice it's an order. "Cerca?" ("are you looking?"), she adds a moment or two later, and you rather feel that if Rodolfo doesn't find it soon he'll get a clout round the ear from her handbag. This Rodolfo mark you, could melt even such a self-possessed Mimi as she is: we'll find it in the moonlight, he says, "and up here the moon is very close", with the hint of a rueful smile: even garrets have their advantages for a poet. Tebaldi can sing quietly when needed, and she can of course spin a beautiful legato line; the problem is (and for many it will be no problem at all) that the amplitude of her voice and manner is not counter-balanced by those intimate details (colouring of words expressive subtlety of phrasing) that would have made her Mimi touching as well as finely and generously sung. Bergonzi is stylish throughout, as is Bastianini, and the rest of the cast is pretty strong, though you might find the Musetta a bit too shrill, the Benoit and Alcindoro caricatured (as usual) and the Colline is audibly corseting a vastly cavernous voice.

Tebaldi gives an undoubtedly star performance (though of Tosca, much of the time, not Mimi) but the real star of the recording is Serafin. Eighty years old when the recording was made, his ardour is as urgently youthful as his brilliance and his lightly touched detailing are so obviously the fruit of a long lifetime's loving study of the score. Beecham's EMI (mono) version remains hors concours: a performance as fine in all its parts as you are ever likely to hear. Serafin runs him pretty close, but does not unify his cast as magically. His account was famous in its day for the spaciousness of its recording (though the voices are recessed into the orchestra at times), and it still sounds good, if rather brighter in this format than it was.
MEO

A review from Gramophone, January 1997

Tebaldi’s Mimi has always been overshadowed by those, from around the same period, of Callas (Votto) and de los Angeles (Beecham). By comparison with them, especially in this, her second recording of the role, the sheer authority of her voice is at times at odds with the fragility and innocence of the character. In this recording more than in her first she is rather apt to compensate with awkward touches of acting: coughs, gasps and singing off the note (each syllable of her very last word – "dormire" – is sung to a slithery downward scoop). But the role has not often been more securely, more gloriously sung, and in matters of phrasing, of sustaining an expressive arch of melody, Tebaldi is very often superb.

The set is also notable for Bergonzi’s meticulous, immaculately sung Rodolfo (his only recording of the role), for Bastianini, in his finest voice as Marcello, and for Siepi’s noble-voiced Colline; d’Angelo is a soubrettish Musetta. Serafin takes some would say an affectionate, others an indulgent view of the score: it is one of the slowest Bohemes on record, and in the scenes of horseplay among the Bohemians just a touch arthritic, though detail is beautifully moulded.

Tebaldi’s admirers will know that in her earlier, 1951 mono recording under Erede the mismatch between Mimi’s frailty and
her magnificent vocal health is less marked, and the ‘supporting cast’ is no less splendid than this one; but many of them will prefer the stereo version even so for the glamour with which that voice is rendered. Just a touch of excessive brightness in the
orchestra; nothing to get upset about.
MEO

A review by London Green from The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera

This was the first Bohème set recorded in stereo, and it has considerable sonic depth. The orchestra, though, seems closer to us than the singers, which further distances the effect of an already rather impersonal performance. Instrumental timbres are
lovely. Tullio Serafin conducts a lyrical reading with finished phrasing and proportion, but it all has a measured tread and at times a monumental quality, outsized and yet attractive - more like a nostalgic memory of La Bohème than the experience itself. Renata Tebaldi is in lovely voice and sings with fine control, but her sound and approach are even darker than in 1951. The melancholy is there but not much of the fragile ecstasy, especially at these tempos. Carlo Bergonzi sings an earnest, finely phrased Rodolfo, though the distance of the recording, the lightness of his voice, and his Mimì's dark command all tend to destroy the illusion of an impetuous and youthful romance between them. He has, however, many beautifully sustained stretches of singing, among them the Act I aria, "Questa è Mimì" and his touching scene in Act III. Ettore Bastianini has a rich Verdi baritone voice of great security and health but lacks some of the spontaneity, humor, and intimacy that individualize the role. Cesare Siepi is again a sonorous but uninteresting Colline. Gianna d'Angelo's Musetta is light and pungent, and in Act IV touching, though with the magisterial Tebaldi the two seem more like the lady-in-waiting and the queen than two young women who have become friends. Though there are many lovely passages in this performance, the intimate charm and improvisational elements of Puccinian romance are often lost.
London Green

A review by Alan Blyth from Opera on CD

Puccini's first masterpiece is notable for its taut, keenly fashioned structure, its abundance of melody, and its economy of characterisation. Over-riding all these is its immediate appeal to the emotions: Mimì's genuine love for her Rodolfo rudely cut short by tuberculosis, lovingly expressed by Puccini, and the youthful exuberance of the four Bohemians, have kept it in the forefront of the public's concept of what opera should be ever since its creation. Not surprisingly there have been a number of notable recordings, the most prized being the classic set conducted by Beecham, but the roughly contemporaneous version conducted by Serafin is a more idiomatic, more Italianate and warmer account of the score. Its merits comprise the essence of Puccini performance.

Mimì was one of Tebaldi's best-loved creations. Her reading may not be as closely characterised as some, but it is as heartfelt and generously sung as any, and she has the soaring, spinto tone to fulfil all Puccini's demands on his beloved heroine. She is partnered by Bergonzi in lyrical and appealing form, singing with attractive brio and just the right weight of voice. The other Bohemians are all well cast, with Siepi particularly notable as the philosopher Colline. Gianna d'Angelo is a sprightly, characterful Musetta. The recording is spacious and atmospheric.
Alan Blyth

  Tilaa

Mimì: Renata Tebaldi
Rodolfo: Carlo Bergonzi
Musetta: Gianna D'Angelo
Marcello: Ettore Bastanini
Colline: Cesare Siepi
Schaunard: Renato Cesari
Benoit/Alcindoro: Fernando Corena
Parpignol: Piero de Palma
Sergente: Attilio D'Orazi
Doganiere: Giorgio Onesti

Chorus and Orchestra of
the Santa Cecilia Academy, Rome
Tullio Serafin

Decca 425 534-2 (mid-price) or
448 725-2 (budget)

 

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