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La bohème: the best recordings of Puccini’s masterful opera

Christopher Cook braces himself against the Parisian winter cold as he selects the best recordings of Puccini’s most heart-wrenching, ‘perfectly constructed’ opera, La bohème

Puccini La Boheme best recordings

After Manon Lescaut had given him his first proper success in 1893, Puccini needed a new subject. He toyed with a tale about the Buddha and even went to Sicily to visit Giovanni Verga with the idea of turning that writer’s short story La Lupa into a libretto. But in the end it was Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème that whetted his appetite.

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Possibly the appeal of high jinks and heartbreak among students and pretty working girls in Paris in the 1840s meant that it was no surprise Puccini had a rival. Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci, was also at work on the same subject. The two men quarrelled and Puccini declared ‘Let him compose and I shall compose, and the public will judge.’ At first Leoncavallo was deemed by the public to have won the prize, but over the century since Toscanini conducted the first performance in Turin in 1896 this most perfectly constructed of all operas has become the one that everyone ‘knows’. It was Mahler no less who said ‘One bar of Puccini’s La bohème is worth the whole of Leoncavallo.’

As well as being one of  Puccini’s best operas,  we listed La bohème one of of the greatest operas ever and Puccini himself as one of the best opera composers of all time

The best recordings of Puccini’s La bohème

Herbert von Karajan

Freni, Pavarotti, Harwood, Panerai, and Ghiaurov; Berlin Philharmonic (1987)

Decca 421 0492 

To work its magic La bohème needs two things above all: a conductor who relishes every nuance in Puccini’s music and a Mimì who moves our ears as well as our hearts. Herbert von Karajan  understood every last detail in the score, and knew that the inner drama of the opera is played out in the orchestra in Puccini’s deft manipulation of his themes and the masterly orchestration. (Listen to the pizzicato strings tiptoeing round Mimì and Rodolfo when they first meet. Or to the brassy glitter that introduces the miraculous second act at the Café Momus.) This is Mirella Freni’s second appearance on disc as Mimì and she is magnificent, the voice richer than before, the characterisation as delicate as ever – her Act III farewell duet with Rodolfo would make stones weep. It helps that Pavarotti’s Rodolfo is arguably one of his finest recordings – ardent and accurate and in character too as the headstrong student engulfed by love. Has anyone recorded a more tender ‘Che gelida manina’ in the past 40 years? The other Bohemians, notably Nicola Ghiaurov as Schaunard, are on form, and if Elizabeth Harwood’s Musetta is not enough of a tart when waltzing her lovers at the Café Momus, she is meltingly tender as Mimì lies dying.

Sir Thomas Beecham

Victoria de los Angeles, Björling etc;. RCA Chorus & Orchestra (1956)

EMI 567 7502  

It was a sharp-eyed manager who midwifed Beecham’s fine Mono version of La bohème when he noticed that Beecham and just about the best Mimì and Rodolfo of their day, de los Angeles and Jussi Björling, would all be in New York in the Spring of 1956. The soloists were booked, supporting roles sourced from the Met and Beecham pulled a scratch orchestra into shape. Given the circumstances – on one day de los Angeles recorded a take while en route for the airport – the result is miraculous. De los Angeles is a most vulnerable Mimì, always the little seamstress. And her death, for once free of saccharine – is almost unendurable. Björling is a beefy, handsome Rodolfo and Merrill’s soft-grained Marcello the best on record.

Antonio Pappano

Vaduva, Alagna etc; Philharmonia Orchestra (1996)

EMI 358 6502  

Pappano well understands that the opera is La bohème and not Mimì e Rodolfo and conducts a performance that sets the love affair in the context of four young footloose and fancy-free students: men, you feel, who are almost ‘playing’ at being students and who will soon return to their bourgeois lives. And what a classy trio Roberto Alagna’s Rodolfo has moved in with – Thomas Hampson, Simon Keenlyside and Samuel Ramey. Alagna is at his best, ardent and alert. There’s wide-eyed wonder in the voice when he realises that it’s ‘una donna’ at the door in Act I. And for once you feel he hasn’t noticed that Mimì has died. Had Leontina Vaduva been a more focused Mimì this might have been my first choice, but her tone is cloudy and she seems detached from the role.

Thomas Schippers

Freni, Gedda etc; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma (1962)

EMI 392 0052 

With Montserrat Caballé, Renata Tebaldi, Anna Moffo and Maria Callas having all recorded La bohème it might seem perverse to pick Mirella Freni twice, but her earlier recording has a special quality to it. The voice is the right weight, lyric but with plenty of power, and unlike others in the role she invests so much of herself in the character. Can you imagine Caballé sewing an artificial flower onto a bonnet in a garret or Callas hanging about outside a bar for a glimpse of her lover? Freni, on the other hand slips away in the closing scene of the opera leaving us as abandoned as the Bohemians. Nicolai Gedda is a properly Italianate Rodolfo with just a hint of the cad about him, which only makes you care all the more about Mimì. If you find Karajan is a trifle opulent, Schippers is restrained though never less than effective.

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