Puccini La bohème
Writing in June about the Beecham La boheme on EMI, I called it ''as complete a distillation of Puccini's drama as you are likely to hear'', and it remains for me the classic, hors concours, desert-island account of this opera, a touchstone for the judgement of all others. But it does not, of course, say all that can be said about the work and thus put all other readings out of court: there are two performances on these latest CD reissues that are touchstones themselves.
Mimi was not an obvious role for Callas; she never sang it on stage and learned it especially for this EMI recording, and she knew better than to attempt a girlish charm or naive innocence that were not in her repertory (but were second nature to Beecham's los Angeles). One misses those qualities in the first two acts, passionately and beautifully sung though they are, but in the Third and Fourth she is incomparable: a great singing actress at the height of her powers. Time and again she makes one realize how full Act 3 is of poignantly recollected intimacies: remembering how she felt Rodolfo's gaze on her as she pretended to sleep beside him; recalling her bonnet, his gift, left under their pillow; even in the two syllables with which she asks whether he is sleeping (''Dorme?'')—all these are so filled with expressive inflection, yet without a hint of studied effect, that the entire act is wrenchingly pathetic. And the final scene is built of no less beautifully observed details: the shy smile of greeting to the other Bohemians, the wisdom of a woman who has learnt much in a very brief while in her recognition of the flighty Musetta's essential goodness, the fining-down of the voice to a murmur as she asks Rodolfo if he still remembers their first meeting. Again and again, too, she inspires her Rodolfo, di Stefano, to comparable subtleties: his anxious concern in their first scene together and his tender protectiveness at the end of Act 3 (even that awkward high B flat is refined to an exquisite pianissimo) are most affecting. But oh! if only Callas had been born later or PAvarotti earlier what a Boheme there might have been! Pavarotti's Rodolfo, in Karajan's reading for Decca, is perhaps the best thing he has ever done: not only the finest recorded account of the role since Bjorling's on the Beecham set, but adding the honeyed Italianate warmth that even Bjorling lacked. He cannot quite match Bjorling's poetic refinement, no doubt, and he is less willing to sing really quietly, but Pavarotti's honest sincerity counts for a great deal: his pride as he declares his vocation as a poet, the desperate feigning of his ''Mimi e una civetta'' are points that most tenors miss or treat as mere opportunities for a big sing. His latter-day image may sometimes tend to hide it, but this recording is a reminder that Pavarotti is an artist of intelligence and delicacy as well as splendour of voice. His Mimi, Freni, sings most beautifully and sensitively, but with less care than either Callas or los Angeles for the revelatory word or phrase inflection: she is good but not outstanding, in short.
Both sets have Panerai as a strong and vividly acted Marcello; a little darker-voiced and a touch more mannered for Karajan than for Callas's conductor Votto. Moffo, on the Callas set, is a conventionally tarty Musetta; Harwood, for Karajan, a much more interesting one: her tiny narration, in Act 4, of her meeting with the stricken Mimi is a gripping moment, and there is no shadow of doubt that her waltz-song in Act 2 is a passionate (and irresistible) avowal to Marcello. Between the conductors on these two sets there is no comparison: Votto is safe and efficient whenever the singers are the centre of attention, dull (the matter-of-fact opening to Act 3) or even vulgar (the monstrous unwritten crescendo at the end of the same act) whenever he is. Karajan, on the other hand, is a great Puccini conductor (oh yes, there is such a thing, and they are rare) who can linger over the beauties of the orchestration without ever losing his grip on the drama or relaxing his support of the singers; and of course the mono recording of the Callas/Votto/EMI set is no match, clean though it is, for the wide perspectives and the fine dynamic gradations of the Pavarotti/Karajan/Decca.
If you can run to only one La boheme, I still think it should be the Beecham/EMI, despite its mono sound and the occasional fluffs and imprecisions that betray how rapidly it was made. But there are not many operas of which a better case can be made for having more than one account in one's collection. Some would plump for Serafin's Decca verion, for his conducting (as detailed as Karajan and even more full-blooded), for Tabaldi (the most prima donna Mimi of them all, opulent and commanding though for me sounding too much like Butterfly or even Santuzza) and for the ever elegant Bergonzi (albeit a touch strained in high passages) as Rodolfo—it is decently recorded, though with the voices oddly recessed into the orchestra. Davis's account on Philips has exceptional delicacy of detail and a touching Mimi in Katia Ricciarelli, but her Rodolfo, Carreras, is more conventional and Davis's account of the score strikes me as rather clinical and unidiomatic. Solti's highly dramatic (and excellent recorded) RCA version with Caballe and Domingo is a definite contender: both singers are in fine voice and she in particular is often subtle in her response to words and character. It is all a bit high-powered for such an intimate drama, and for a modern La boheme to supplement the Beecham I would myself choose Karajan/Decca, especially (I know this is cheating) if I could have Callas/EMI as well, for the best of all presently possible worlds.'