Puccini: La bohème
Licia Albanese, soprano (Mimì), Hilde Güden, soprano (Musetta), Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Rodolfo), Frank Guarrera, baritone (Marcello), Cesare Siepi, bass (Colline). Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Alberto Erede, conductor. Plus highlights from La bohème with Bidú Sayao, soprano (Mimì), Lois Hunt, soprano (Musetta), Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Rodolfo), Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone (Marcello), Cesare Siepi, bass (Colline). Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Fausto Cleva, conductor.
MYTO 2CD 023.H072 (2 CDs) (F) (ADD) TT: 2:17:37

Renata Tebaldi, soprano (Mimì), Hilde Güden, soprano (Musetta), Giacinto Prandelli, tenor (Rodolfo), Giovanni Inghilleri, baritone (Marcello), Raphaël Arie, bass (Colline). Chorus and Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Alberto Erede, conductor. Plus highlights from La bohème. Licia Albanese, soprano (Mimì), Patrice Munsel, soprano (Musetta), Giuseppe di Stefano, tenor (Rodolfo), Leonard Warren, baritone (Marcello), Nicola Moscona, bass (Colline). Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, Renato Cellini and Victor Trucco, conductors.
NAXOS 8.110252-53 (2 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 2:22:08



Two new issues on the MYTO and Naxos labels pair complete performances of La bohème with highlights from Puccini’s beloved opera. In the case of the MYTO release, a complete Met broadcast from 15 March 1952 is coupled with highlights from another that took place on 17 March 1951. The Naxos issue features two monophonic studio recordings—Renata Tebaldi’s first Bohème for London records, and an RCA Met highlights disc. Three of the recordings (one complete, two highlights) spotlight Giuseppe di Stefano’s Rodolfo, a role tailor-made for the Italian tenor’s unique and considerable gifts. Di Stefano did make a complete studio recording of this opera for EMI in 1956, with Maria Callas as Mimì. On that occasion, both of these great artists delivered unforgettable performances. But it must be admitted that by the mid-50s, some of the bloom had been taken off di Stefano’s vocal sheen, particularly in the upper register. In the MYTO and Naxos releases, di Stefano is at his youthful best, with one of the most beautiful tenor voices on records aligned with superb diction and passionate delivery. In every measure, di Stefano lives and breathes the impetuous, romantic poet. His discovery of Mimì’s death is all the more heartbreaking for its lack of forced melodrama, exactly what great verismo should be.

Unfortunately the complete 15 March 1952 Met broadcast is the weakest of the three di Stefano Bohèmes included on these issues. The recorded sound is definitely the poorest—congested, with some breakup and distortion in high and loud passages. Additionally this broadcast finds the tenor in less than optimal form, with his tone a bit thicker than usual, top notes slightly forced. Perhaps a slight vocal indisposition gave di Stefano a case of frayed nerves, because on several occasions — particularly in Act I—he rushes ahead of the beat. Still, a young di Stefano on an off day is superior to many tenors at their best. Nevertheless, the difference in vocal quality and general comfort is quite evident in the highlights from the 17 March 1951 Met broadcast and the RCA studio disc, which di Stefano recorded in 1950-51. On those two occasions di Stefano was in fabulous voice, offering about as fine a Rodolfo as there is on records. The tone is absolutely glorious, high notes ring out with impressive freedom, and the palette of vocal colors is impressive for its variety and beauty (his diminuendo in the Act III duet with Mimì is absolutely ravishing). In both the March 1951 Met broadcast and the RCA highlights disc di Stefano’s marvelous performances are reproduced in fine, clear sound. Additionally, the coordination between conductor and soloists far outpaces the ragged 1952 broadcast.

Licia Albanese is the Mimì in the March 1952 Met broadcast and RCA highlights disc. She made two complete commercial recordings of La bohème—a 1938 La Scala version, and a 1946 NBC broadcast, led by the conductor who presided over the opera’s world premiere, Arturo Toscanini. While Albanese does not possess a vocal quality that was ideal in beauty or youthful tone, she is a consummate singing-actress, who brings Mimì vividly to life. Bidú Sayao’s Mimì is exquisitely sung and interpreted in the March 1951 broadcast. Cesare Siepi, appearing in both the 1951 and 1952 Met broadcasts, is a predictably superb Colline, both in voice and bearing. Frank Guarrera (1952 broadcast), Giuseppe Valdengo (1951 broadcast), and Leonard Warren (RCA highlights) are a worthy trio of Marcellos. Hilde Güden, a vivacious and vocally superb Musetta on the 1952 Met broadcast, also sings that role to great effect on the 1951 complete London recording, now reissued by Naxos. This is the first of two complete Bohèmes Renata Tebaldi recorded for London. The second, a 1959 stereo recording under the direction of Tullio Serafin, featured an incredible assemblage of vocal talent—Tebaldi, Carlo Bergonzi, Ettore Bastianini and Cesare Siepi. The cast on this 1951 mono recording does not equal the later version. Nevertheless,there are several worthy contributions. Certainly, Güden’s Musetta is one of the chief assets. Likewise, Tebaldi’s Mimì is in younger, fresher voice on this first outing. For the most part Tebaldi is superb, pouring forth gorgeous tone, and offering considerable involvement in the role. Occasionally a high note does not have ideal sweetness, but that problem is not as evident as on the stereo Bohème. This is certainly one of the better Mimìs on disc, a fine souvenir of a great artist in her youthful prime.

In terms of vocal beauty and opulence, tenor Giacinto Prandelli does not begin to compare with such Rodolfos as di Stefano, Beniamino Gigli, Jussi Bjoerling, Carlo Bergonzi, and Luciano Pavarotti. Nevertheless, Prandelli compensates a great deal with a performance of admirable nuance and attention to detail. This is a very thoughtfully characterized Rodolfo, culminating in a moving final scene. Prandelli certainly doesn’t let the side down. The rest of the cast is fine if not outstanding. Like Prandelli, Giovanni Inghilleri and Raphaël Arie do not possess exceptional vocal endowments. But like Prandelli they sing with musicality and involvement. Fernando Corena demonstrates his superb gifts for characterization as Schaunard. Mechiorre Luise’s Benoit and Alcindoro are a delight. And the casting of Piero de Palma as Parpignol is certainly a luxury. In the recording studio, conductor Alberto Erede does not encounter the ensemble difficulties of the 1952 Met broadcast, and leads a performance that has ample momentum, all the while allowing the singers to make their musical and dramatic points. Mark Obert-Thorn does his usual excellent job in transferring the London and RCA LPs to compact disc. There is virtually no surface noise, and each recording offers plenty of warmth and detail. The London recording suffers from a bit of pre-echo that does not intrude on enjoyment of this performance.

K.M. (May 2003)