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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohème (1896)
Anna Moffo (soprano) – Mimi; Richard Tucker (tenor) – Rodolfo; Robert Merrill (baritone) – Marcello; Mary Costa (soprano) – Musetta; Giorgio Tozzi (bass) – Colline; Philip Maero (baritone) – Schaunard; Fernando Corena (bass) – Benoit; Giorgio Onesti (bass) – Alcindoro; Adelio Zagonara (tenor) – Parpignol; Flavio Tosin (baritone) – A Customhouse Official; Adelio Zagonara (tenor) – Sergeant
Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Erich Leinsdorf
rec. Rome Opera House, 15–20 June 1961. DDD
SONY/BMG 82876 82621 2 [50:13 + 49:45]

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Critics’ opinions have been divided concerning Erich Leinsdorf’s conducting, both in the concert hall and in the opera house. Efficient but cold, erratic, metronomic in the bargain, inspirational; these are just a few remarks that come to mind. Austrian-born but early moving to the US he was for some time Arturo Toscanini’s assistant and that should be credential enough for being a suitable conductor of La bohème. After all, Toscanini had led the premiere in 1896 and must have been able to pass on valuable knowledge of the score and the composer’s wishes. Toscanini’s own recording of the opera, made more than fifty years after the premiere is still the fastest version committed to disc, while Sir Thomas Beecham’s legendary recording from 1956 is the slowest, unless Bernstein’s DG version beats him. Sir Thomas also claimed first-hand knowledge since he had discussed the score in detail with the composer. In both cases time tends to change memory. In the end there is no objective truth to interpretation, other than that the conductor has to be true to his own reading, his own conviction.

Having known the Beecham for more than forty years and the marginally later Serafin - also on the slow side - for quite some time too, I have a predilection for unstressed Bohèmes. Timings show that Leinsdorf generally is somewhat faster but I never got the feeling that he was rushed. He is flexible enough and lenient with his singers - or maybe the other way around. As a whole this is a well paced performance that should be to many opera lovers’ taste. Of course Puccini injects some doses of saccharin, but the reading rarely becomes lachrymose, apart from Richard Tucker’s excessive sobbing in Mimi’s death scene. The result is uncannily similar to laughs and while that can often be a natural reaction to deep grief it robs the tragic end of some of its solemnity. Honestly, though, Björling’s grief on the Beecham set is not much better.

This was recorded in 1961 in three-track sound. Now in SACD mode we are in for a stunningly realistic sonic experience with wide dynamics and pin-point detailing in both orchestra and on stage. Producer Richard Mohr, at least during these early stages of stereophonic recording, revelled in sound effects, sometimes annoyingly prominent on repeated hearing. Nevertheless they go some way towards simulating a real stage performance. The balance is slightly to the advantage of the orchestra but not nearly as much as on some Solti recordings of the same era. The touchstone for any recording or performance is the second act with all its simultaneous activity. Here Leinsdorf excels in Toscaninian precision and the concluding parade with trumpets and drums is more lively and more atmospheric than either of the two main contenders of roughly the same age: Beecham on EMI and Serafin on Decca. The chilly morning at the tollgate in act three is also frosty enough to make you shudder in your favourite chair and wish you had a fireplace nearby.

RCA Victor, as it was then, has gathered a fine cast of singers, most of them regulars at the Met at the time. Some of them also took part in the Beecham recording: Merrill, Tozzi and Corena. The latter also sang on the Serafin set, as he did on most other sets of the period. They are still in good shape: Merrill’s nut-brown baritone both warm and intense; Tozzi having lost some of the sonority during the intervening years but still able to deliver an inward Vecchia zimarra in the last act; Corena the sure-footed comedian as Benoit, the landlord in act one. It’s a pity he wasn’t also allotted Alcindoro in act two, as he was on both the Beecham and the Serafin – Giorgio Onesti doesn’t make much of an impression and should have been given the customs officer’s role as he was on the Serafin set.

Mary Costa is a lively and charming Musetta, warmer of voice than Serafin’s Gianna d’Angelo and vocally more attractive than Beecham’s Lucine Amara, who is however a good actor, especially in the last act. Philip Maero does what he can with Schaunard’s part but he hasn’t enough sap in his voice to make him more than the usual stuffed shirt.

As Rodolfo Richard Tucker turns in one of his best recorded performances. He can sometimes be dull and uninterested as he was on the RCA Traviata, also with Moffo and Merrill, or over-sentimental as in a few other cases. Here he sings beautifully and expressively with an especially lovely O soave fanciulla. The “soave fanciulla” is of course Anna Moffo. At this stage of her career she was probably the most “soave” soprano in the business with that creamy sound and the exquisite pianissimo tone that came naturally to her. She sounds young, which the formidable Tebaldi for Serafin never does. Victoria de los Angeles for Beecham is of course on an interpretative level of her own but Moffo is not far behind.

A clear first choice for any standard opera is often difficult to give. La bohème has had a number of distinguished recordings: Albanese-Gigli, Tebaldi-Campora; Carteri-Tagliavini, de los Angeles-Björling, Tebaldi-Bergonzi and Freni-Gedda - all have their merits and to this number the present Moffo-Tucker version can confidently be added. Even the DG recording from the early sixties has the young Renata Scotto as Mimi as well as Tito Gobbi as Marcello but it is ruled out through Poggi’s insensitive Rodolfo. From later years Karajan with Freni and Pavarotti has many advocates and there are a number of others. For my money it is still the Beecham with the unique rapport between de los Angeles and Björling, now in the Great Recordings of the Century series on EMI. I greatly admire the Serafin with Bergonzi; almost on a par with Björling and excellent supporting singers, but especially for Anna Moffo’s ravishing Mimi the Leinsdorf set now also occupies pride of place. The set comes with reprints of the original liner notes from 1961 by Francis Robinson and Richard Mohr plus a synopsis. The libretto can be downloaded.

A hearty welcome to this 45-year-old recording, coming up fresh as paint in this latest incarnation.

Göran Forsling


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