Puccini La bohème

Author: 
Michael Oliver
PUCCINI La bohème – Beecham

PUCCINI La bohème – Beecham

  • (La) Bohème, 'Bohemian Life'

The disadvantages of the famous Beecham Boheme are obvious in this company. It is the only mono recording among those listed above and the most restricted in dynamic range. The sheer sense of space that is needed if the complex crowd scene of Act 2 is to emerge with the maximum impact is inevitably lacking; the climaxes here and elsewhere are somewhat constricted; no less important, it is sometimes harder to focus on the subtleties of Puccini's orchestration—Solti's orchestra on RCA and Davis's on Philips are simply both, in their very different ways, more colourful. The Beecham set was also made in a great hurry, and this shows in a number of patches of slightly insecure ensemble, even a couple of wrong entries; no such flaws mar Solti's or Davis's accounts. But I can think of no other important respect in which the Beecham version does not stand at least half a head (often head and shoulders) above its more recent rivals, admirable in many respects though they both are.
Katia Ricciarelli, on the Davis set, is a most touching Mimi, a little generalized in some of the fuller passages, perhaps, but beautiful at such quietly crucial moments as (in Act 4) her greeting to the Bohemians gathered at her bedside and the recollection of her first meeting with Rodolfo. Montserrat Caballe, for Solti, gives one of her finest recorded performances, tenderly expressive and finely shaded, with only the occasional mannered scoop or swallowed consonant to spoil things. But neither is so predestinately right for the role as los Angeles: right both in vocal quality and in sheer involvement with every word and every musical phrase that Mimi utters. Beyond a certain point (usually a certain dynamic level) most sopranos stop being Mimi and simply produce the same sound that they would if they were singing Aida or Tosca. There are very few moments where los Angeles does this; even under pressure (and Beecham's unhurried tempos do put her under pressure at times, as does the fact that a full-throated Italianate high C was never her strongest suit), the very difficulties themselves are used as an expressive and interpretative resource. Hers is the most moving and involving Mimi on record.
And Bjorling's is unquestionably the most musical Rodolfo. He has the reputation of having been a bit of a dry stick, dramatically (on stage he looked like the other Bohemians' elderly, portly uncle), but on record he is the one exponent of the role in my experience to be credible both as a lover and as a poet. His voice is fine silver rather than brass, it can caress as well as weep, and his love for Mimi is more often confided than it is bellowed for all Paris to hear. Both Jose Carreras (for Davis) and Placido Domingo (for Solti) are in fine voice and both are intelligent singers; of the two Domingo is the more ardently involved (Carreras is more inclined to pour out golden tone of uniform colour) but neither is much concerned with verbal acting or with dynamic markings below mf or thereabouts.
This, indeed, is one of the most conspicuous differences between Beecham's account and most others: its simple belief that when Puccini wrote pp he meant it. Davis is most scrupulous about observing Puccini's markings in other respects (and the very fine Philips recording enables one to hear those details with great clarity), but he has not persuaded most of his singers to do likewise (his Marcello, Ingvar Wixell, sounds as though he is singing Scarpia) and for this reason and a certain tendency not to see the wood for the trees, his account lacks a degree or two both of style and of fluency. Beecham (whose spell over his entire cast—in which there is no weak link—extends as far as teaching his Schaunard, John Reardon, an irresistibly funny cut-glass English accent for the parrot-fancying milord) makes one realize what an intimate opera this is, how much of it is quiet, how many of its exchanges are sotto voce, and he thus enables his singers to use the full range of their voices and to employ subtleties of colour, phrasing and diction that are simply not available to a voice at full stretch (and in the process he largely cancels out the disadvantage of his recording's restricted dynamic range).
It is the same with his handling of the orchestra: set beside Solti's exuberance and rhythmic vigour (hugely exciting in Act 2; no less responsive to the big emotional moments elsewhere), one would expect Beecham to seem understated, but again and again one turns back to his reading and discovers nothing missing—he has achieved as much or more with less. This is as complete a distillation of Puccini's drama as you are likely to hear, and although it would be customary at this point to recommend it with due acknowledgment of its dated sound, and to suggest that one of its rivals (Solti's RCA, probably) would be an alternative first choice for those who insist on stereo, I really cannot bring myself to do so: why go for a good and likeable Boheme in stereo when you can have a truly great one in (rather good) mono?'

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