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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
La Bohème (1896)
Anna Netrebko (soprano) – Mimi; Rolando Villazon (tenor) – Rodolfo; Nicole Cabell (soprano) – Musetta; Boaz Daniel (baritone) – Marcello; Stéphane Degout (baritone) – Schaunard; Vitalij Kowaljow (bass) – Colline; Tiziano Bracci (bass) – Benoît; Alcindoro; A customs official; Kevin Connors (tenor) – Parpignole; Gerald Häussler (bass) – Customs-house sergeant
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, April 2007, Philharmonie im Gasteig, Munich
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7949 [54:44 + 52:52]
Experience Classicsonline

Just a couple of months ago - I am writing this in mid-December 2008 - I reviewed the reissue of Karajan’s recording of La Bohème on Decca with Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Elisabeth Harwood, Rolando Panerai and Nicolai Ghiaurov (read the review here). I finished off the review with the statement ‘This is one of the greatest opera recordings of all times.’ I then made it a ‘Recording of the Month’ and included it among my allotted six choices for ‘Recordings of the Year’.  The only serious contender is the much older Beecham recording with Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Björling, which will never be redundant but falls short through the rather mediocre sound. I will probably never withdraw my enthusiasm for these two sets but here comes another that goes straight to the winners’ stand. The recording, constituting the soundtrack for Robert Dornhelm’s film, was first issued just months ago and reviewed by Ian Lace and this second issue is identical, but presented in a slim-line box and without libretto. I suppose the target group is those seeing the film and wanting a souvenir.
 
But it is much more than that. Rarely has this opera been so permeated by youthful freshness, charm and humour but also a sense of real-life report. These characters are no cardboard figures but young people of flesh and blood, leading a joyous but miserable life in the Quartier Latin. I haven’t seen the film and I doubt it has reached these shores but the stills in the booklet seem to tell the same story as the soundtrack does.
 
Bertrand de Billy keeps the score on the move, being marginally faster than Karajan, but doesn’t underplay the great emotional scenes: the end of act I, most of act III and the second half of act IV. He is wonderfully precise and rhythmically taut in act II, which has been a stumble-block to many conductors.
 
The cast of soloists is uniformly excellent in what after all is Puccini’s ensemble opera par preference. Columns and columns have been written about the extraordinary rapport between Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon – I reviewed their Manon on DVD recently – and their joint scenes on this recording again show their instinctive feeling for phrases, nuances and understanding of their characters. There is a nervous youthfulness in their dialogue in act I and the arias and duets there and elsewhere have hardly ever been sung with such golden tone and perfect timing. But the rest of the cast are also perfectly attuned to their roles, none more so than Boaz Daniel’s lyrical and extremely well sung Marcello. He is without doubt superior to Robert Merrill’s vocally superb but theatrically all-purpose painter on the Beecham set and he is more elegant than Panerai on the Karajan.

Nicole Cabell, Cardiff Singer of the World winner in 2005, stood out as enormously promising on her debut recital (see review) but she isn’t promising any more; she is as fully fledged a star as could be. On that recital I found some coldness in her voice in Musetta’s waltz song. Maybe she isn’t as alluring as, say, Anna Moffo on the Callas recording but the aria couldn’t be more persuasively sung. Stéphane Degout is as good a Schaunard as Puccini allows him – the role isn’t exactly one of the most grateful vocally – and Vitalij Kowaljow is a warm Colline. Tiziano Bracci doubles as Benoît and Alcindoro, as very often also is the norm on stage, and appears also as a customs official in act III. He makes less of a caricature of the two old men than some singers in the past.
 
The sound is splendid and I only wondered about the information that it was recorded live. There are no signs of an audience or other distractions, only some footsteps which make dramatic sense anyway.
 
‘This album compares favorably with the best of all previous La Bohème recordings’, wrote Ian Lace in his review. I agree wholeheartedly.
 
Göran Forsling

see also reviews by Ian Lace
(different release of same recording) and Robert Farr (highlights)
 

 


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