La Bohéme…. something from the old days


First, attention for two live recordings from the New York Met: from 1947, under Giuseppe Antonicelli and from1958, conducted by Thomas Schippers. Both were released on Sony some time ago and both are well worth listening to.

Bidú Sayão 1947

Brazilian Bidú Sayão was considered one of the most beautiful sopranos at the Met, and not just literally. Her voice is feathery light and reminiscent of women’s voices in the old movies from the early days of the “talking movies,” which definitely suits the role of Mimi.

Personally, I prefer rounder voices with slightly dramatic undertones, but this really makes me happy. Combined with the young Richard Tucker, she sounds very delicate and needy. Giuseppe Antonicelli’s conduction is fast-paced (Sony 74646762)

Below Richard Tucker, Bidu Sayao, Mimi Benzell and Frank Valentino in the quartet “Dunque e proprio finita” from the third act:

Licia Albanese 1958

A warning is in order: the sound is not great. It is sharp and dull and occasionally the radio waves are humming rebelliously, but it also has something quite endearing. As if a time machine takes you back to the afternoons of yore, when the whole family settled down in front of the radio to listen to the latest invention, the live broadcast.

The performance, too, is old-fashionedly delicious. Not that the voices are all that exceptional, apart from Carlo Bergonzi who is at his finest, the other roles could have been better cast.

Licia Albanese (almost fifty by then, which is not at all audible) was a real crowd pleaser, especially in New York. Thomas Schippers conducts very vividly (Sony 8697804632)


Victoria de los Angeles 1956

Do you want to cry, from the very beginning? If so, you have come to the right place. Thomas Beecham really does his best to make the RCA orchestra sound a little detached, but the musicians are real human beings and they have no reservations concerning true love. Completely unashamedly, they allow all feelings, including a healthy dose of sentimentality. So you may cry all you want to!

The first meeting between Rodolfo and Mimi already… his ‘così’ when pouring his ‘po’ di vino’ and then her ‘grazie, buona sera’…. Folks, anyone here who doesn’t instantly forget about the rest of the world has no heart!

Jussi Björling is a dream Rodolfo: sensitive, sensible, sweet and so damn attractive! That Victoria de los Angeles (Mimi) falls for him we can’t blame her for, after all, so do we. But we grant him to her wholeheartedly because of her voice, it is so terribly beautiful that it almost hurts. As if she were the Madonna herself who has her extinguished candle lit by her neighbor. In which we conveniently forget that she probably blew out the candle herself. That, then, is the only downside of the recording: Mimi was no Madonna.

For the rest: a must. Also because of the irresistible Marcello by Robert Merrill (Naxos 8.111249/50)

Maria Callas 1956

This recording will not go with me to the “desert island.” It is not because of the conductor, nor the splendidly playing orchestra from La Scala: Antonino Votto conducts smoothly and excitingly and his attention to all the details is truly brilliant,

Rolando Panerai (Marcello) and Giuseppe di Stefano (Rodolfo) are a match for each other, their voices suit each other excellently, although I find di Stefano a bit on the screaming side at times. I also like young Anna Moffo’s very sensual Musetta. The problem – at least for me – lies with La Divina.

Mimi is not a role with which we associate Callas, and rightly so. She has therefore – wisely enough – never sung her on stage. No matter how hard she tries (and she really does!) nowhere does she manage to convince me that she is a poor seamstress, her voice is just too regal for that. Frantically she tries to keep her voice small which makes her sound quite artificial. But I’m sure her fans would disagree with me.

The recording still sounds surprisingly good (Warner Classics 0825646341078)

Renata Tebaldi 1958

Actually, I also find Tebaldi’s voice a bit too heavy for Mimi, a tad too dramatic too, but there is no denying that her interpretation is very exciting. You have to keep listening to it.

Carlo Bergonzi is an insanely beautiful Rodolfo; secretly, I think he is the real star of the recording. Ettore Bastianini is a very charming Marcello, but Gianna d’Angelo is not a beautiful Musetta. Her singing has nothing sensual and is vulgar at times.

Tulio Serafin conducts more than superbly and the orchestral sound is brilliant. Remarkable actually how wonderful that recording still sounds! (Decca 4487252)

Cesira Ferrani

Would you like to know what the first Mimi sounded like? You can. Cesira Ferrani who created the role in 1896 recorded two minutes from Mimi’ in 1903 (Creators’ Records SRO 818-2).

Cesira Ferrani (Mimi) and Evan Gorga (Rodolfo) at the premiére 1 februari 1896

It still sounds surprisingly good, thus we know that Mimi’s soprano was very light, but far from soubrette. Ferrani was also the first Manon Lescaut, Micaela and Melisande, so you can suspect some deeper things under the veneer of an “innocent” girl. As it should be.

Also on Spotify, are a few of her recordings taken from The Harold Wayne Collection and released on Symposium. Here, in addition to “Si mi chiamamo Mimi,” you will also find “Donde lieta usci. And – a real oddity! – an aria from Lohengrin sung in Italian.


And then there’s (go ahead, it’s almost Christmas anyway) one of all-time’s greatest feel-good movies: Moonstruck.

The story itself has little to do with the real opera, except that the main characters attend a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan – it’s good old Zeffirelli – after which we fast-forward to the movie’s happy ending. But in that scene, we too, along with both protagonists are allowed to shed a few tears. The fact that Puccini’s music resounds not only at the credits but also throughout the film is a nice touch.

Trivia: the old man (Loretta’s grandfather) is played by Feodor Chaliapin junior, the son of the great Russian bass.

Scene in the opera. The voices you hear are those of Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi.

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