Many opera lovers will probably agree on one thing: one of the best Bohèmes ever is the 1973 version recorded by Decca under von Karajan. With Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.
Rodolfo has always been Pavarotti’s calling card. For years he was considered the best interpreter of the role – his fantastic legato, the smoothness and naturalness with which he sang the high notes are truly exemplary. Incidentally, as befitted a typical Italian tenor of the time, he sang the end of “O soave fanciulla” at the same height as the soprano. Not prescribed, but it was tradition!
Freni was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful Mimi’s in history. Tender and fragile, with her heartbreaking pianissimi and legato arches she managed to move even the greatest cynics to tears.
Von Karajan conducted theatrical and passionate way, with ample attention to the sonic beauty of the score. As the Germans would say “das gab’s nur einmal.”
In 2008 we celebrated not only Puccini’s 150th birthday, but also von Karajan’s 100th. Moreover, it was 35 years since the famed conductor recorded La Bohème: a cause for celebration! And lo and behold – Decca has released the opera in a limited deluxe edition (Decca 4780254). On the bonus CD, Mirella Freni talks, among other things, about her relationship with von Karajan and about singing Puccini roles. It is really fascinating.
Arias and duet from the first act:
Mirella Freni made her debut as Mimì at the Metropolitan Opera in September 1965. Her Rodolfo was another debutant: the (how unfair!) nowadays almost completely forgotten Italian tenor Gianni Raimondi. For me, he is preferable to Pavarotti. I find his voice more pleasant and elegant. And he could act! Freni’s and Raimondi’s renditions were captured on a wonderful film, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. An absolute must (DG 0476709).
“O Soave Fanciulla” with Freni and Raimondi:
History was made with La Bohème from the Met in 1977 (DG 0734025): it was the very first direct transmission from the New York opera house on TV. The production was in the hands of Pier Luigi Pizzi, who at that time was not yet obsessed with excessive ballets and the colour red.
Although I was never a big fan of Pavarotti, I cannot deny that he produces a fresh sound here and that his high notes stand like a house. Acting was never his cup of tea, but here he does the best he can.
It becomes really exciting when Mimì enters: in 1977, Renata Scotto was at her unprecedented peak. She spins the most beautiful pianissimi and her legato and mezza voce are so beautiful they make you want to cry. The rest of the cast is no more than adequate, but the young James Levine conducts as if his life depended on it!
Scotto sings ‘Si mi chiamano Mimì’:
Musetta was not really a role with which we associate Scotto. Neither did she herself, but she accepted the challenge with both hands. In the Zeffirelli Met production of 1982, she sang a Musetta to die for. Alongside the very moving José Carreras and Teresa Stratas, she was the undisputed star of this recording (DG 073 4539 9).
Scotto as Musetta:
Sometimes I wonder how perverse it is when people pay a lot of money to go see, dressed in fur coats, the misery of freezing poor artists?
I myself took great pleasure in the sight of all those fur-wearing audiences on my way to a performance of La Bohème at La Scala in 2003 (Arthouse 107119). The then 40-year-old Zeffirelli production was altered a bit, but the beautiful, realistic sets and brilliant lighting remained the same. The snowflakes, the light radiating from the inn that warmly colors the white earth, the snowy bench and Mimi’s tear-stained face: there is something magical about it all and it is more like a movie than a performance in the theater. It cannot leave you unmoved, all the more so because all the protagonists are truly superb.
Cristina Gallardo-Domâs is a delicate, emotionally torn Mimì. Her lyrical soprano is a bit reminiscent of Freni. Malcero Ãlvarez convinces with a (then still) beautifully lyrically sung Rodolfo and Hei-Kyung Hong, clearly inspired by Scotto, portrays a kitschy Musetta. Bruno Bartolletti conducts lively, without shying away from sentiment.
Below, ‘O soave Fanciulla’ with Gallardo-Domâs and Ãlvarez
Gallardo-Domâs was also present in Zurich two years later. With this very realistically staged Bohème, Philippe Sireuil made a thunderous debut at the Zürich Opera House (EMI 3774529). Don’t expect Zeffirelli-like scenes with snowflakes drifting down, however.
Sireuil’s conception is very “down to earth” and as such more veristically faithful than any other production known to me. With great love of detail, he draws the lives of the foursome of artist friends: their attic is tiny and stuffy, and their struggle to better themselves is life-like. The costumes (second-hand clothing from thrift stores) is contemporary, yet timeless at the same time.
Whatever Mimì is suffering from (it is surely not tuberculosis – the director doesn’t even allow her to cough) doesn’t really matter, although it seems to be drug related. Like a sick bird (how much she resembles Edith Piaf!) she slowly slides into the abyss, and her death forces the others to really think, for the first time. The third act, set at a gloomy train station, is particularly strong and painfully poignant.
The entire cast, headed by a movingly beautiful Marcello Giordani and a very virile Michael Volle (Marcello) in addition to the heartbreaking Gallardo-Domâs, is also outstanding. The much lamented László Polgár sings Colline. Believe me: this La Bohème is really not to be missed.
Below, Marcello Giordani and Michael Volle in ‘Marcello finalmente:
Back in time a little, to Sydney, Australia, 1993. For the first time I saw the production on TV (yes, kids: once upon a time there were the days when an opera was simply broadcast live from an opera house on TV!) and not soon will I forget that night. I didn’t know any of the singers; it was the name of the director (Baz Luhrmann) that drew my attention to the production.
The singers were mostly young – a plus, since the opera is about young people in love. They could sing, too, and with their looks of real movie stars, they could have been on the movie screen. Strange really, that, apart from Cheryl Barker (Mimì), no one had a great career. That Luhrmann was obsessed with opera is also confirmed by the film buffs: his Moulin Rouge is a direct look alike , including the red-lit “L’amour” on the rooftop. (Arthaus Musik 100 954)
Scene from the production:
But, hand on heart, if I had to go through life with only one recording of La Bohème … I would choose John Copley’s 43-year-old production made for the Royal Opera House.
My “desert island recording” was captured on DVD in 1983 by NVC Arts (Warner 4509 99222-2) and – no matter how many times I watch it, I never get tired of it. And still, after all those years, it always makes me cry. Some things never age.
Neither does the cast : Ileana Cotrubas as my beloved Mimì, the irresistible young Neil Shicoff as Rodolfo and Thomas Allen as a very erotic Marcello.