Studio recording made at the Rome Opera House, June 15-30, 1961. In the 1950s, beginning with "Rigoletto," RCA set out to record the major Italian standard repertory operas with "American casts," that is with casts typical of the Metropolitan Opera at the time. In a relatively short time, it became clear that American studios, orchestras and choruses were simply more expensive than their equivalents in Europe. This recording is essentially a gala-level Metropolitan cast that has been recorded in less costly Rome.
Original producer: Richard Mohr.
This recording is an example of the superb work done by RCA engineers in the early 1960s for the "Living Stereo" series of recordings. (It should be noted that the term "RCA" has been totally expunged from this Sony re-issue.) The original recording was made on tape with three tracks. In this edition, the original tapes were revisited with up-to-date equipment, electronic splicing has replaced the original hand-held razorblade cuts, and the music has been spread on additional tracks for the benefit of audiophiles who dote on such better-than-real falsehoods. The simple fact is that this recording sounded astonishingly good in its day and still sounds fine in ours, without (or perhaps despite) any aid from current engineers. There are those who hold that the sound on the original LPs was more pleasing to the ear than that of any subsequent CD version, but that is a matter of personal judgement and taste rather than objective truth.
Listeners should be aware that this recording was made when producers went out of their way to establish complex, moving soundscapes in order to reproduce the shifting sounds of an actual stage performance.
Original recording engineer: Lewis Layton.
MIMI, a young woman who lives next door to an assorted quartet of artists - Anna Moffo (soprano)
RODOLFO, a poet whose mind dwells in castles in the air while his body huddles before the flames of his burning manuscripts - Richard Tucker (tenor)
MUSETTA, a very self-assured young woman who has an off-and-on relationship with a painter - Mary Costa (soprano)
MARCELLO, a painter with a powerful yen for Musetta - Robert Merrill (baritone)
SCHAUNARD, a musician who is not to be trusted with birds - Philip Maero (baritone)
COLLINE, a philosopher who owns a coat that has never bowed before hypocrisy - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
BENOIT, a Parisian landlord plagued with four deadbeats - Fernando Corena (bass)
PARPIGNOL, a memorable street vendor of toys - Adelio Zagonara (tenor)
ALCINDORO, a state councillor and an admirer of Musetta who gets caught in some expensive cross-fire - Giorgio Onesti (bass)
SERGEANT - Adelio Zagonara (bass)
CUSTOMSHOUSE OFFICIAL - Flavio Tosin (bass)
Erich Leinsdorf with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus
~ No libretto. (The booklet that accompanies this set provides a web address at which an electronic libretto may obtained. In common with every other such libretto offer I have ever encountered, the web address did not work.)
~ A brief and quite stodgy essay on the opera by Francis Robinson, dating from 1961 and presumably commissioned for the original LP offering.
~ A brief summary of the plot by act.
~ A track list with timings which fails to identify the people singing--with the exceptions of Musetta's Waltz, of course. (For some utterly incomprehensible reason, "Ehi! Rodolfo!" is given its own 40-second track between "Mi chiamano Mimi" and "O suave fanciulla.")
~ A lame exercise in patting his own back offered by John Newton, in which he boasts about the wonderful the sound of this edition.
There are many fine recordings of Puccini's "La Bohème." For purely idiosyncratic reasons, my own favorite is the pre-World War II version with Beniamino Gigli. Many swear by the Karajan studio recording with Pavarotti and Freni, while others hold that the classic Beecham-Björling-De los Angeles version from the 1950s is unbeatable. I am fond of the Callas-Di Stefano studio version--with Moffo as Musetta, as well as the earlier of Tebaldi's two studio versions, the one with Prandelli. As far as I am concerned, this version with its New York dream cast certainly belongs in that august company. It is clear that no small number of listeners would even rank it first.
Anna Moffo (1932-2006) was an American and one of the foremost singers of her generation. She was a fine singing actress and a woman of great attractiveness, once even being named one of the ten most beautiful women in Italy. She was best-known for the lyric-coloratura roles, although later in her career she took on some of the more dramatic parts. She made her Italian operatic debut in 1956. Later that year her American debut was in the role of Mimi at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. She reached the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with Violetta in 1959. In 1999, the Met gave her a Gala to celebrate her forty years with that house. On this recording, she is a convincingly young and vulnerable Mimi and at her very best in the latter half of the opera.
Richard Tucker (1913-1975), born Rubin Ticker. Prior to becoming an opera star, he had already achieved a distinguished career as a Chazan in the New York-New Jersey area. In 1944, Edward Johnson, then head of the Metropolitan Opera, was taken to see him during services in a synagogue. Johnson, liking what he saw and heard, offered Tucker a Met contract. In short order, Tucker became effectively the house tenor at the Met. Over much of his career, he regarded himself as the premiere American tenor (and perhaps even more). Many then and even now hold him in very high regard. On the other hand, many then couldn't and still can't abide the man for his all-out singing and hyper-emotionalism. For myself, I love the guy and I will gladly take his emotional committment to his roles over the technically-polished but cool and comparatively listless singing so often heard today. Throughout his career of operatic stardom he continued to be active as a cantor, making guest appearances at synagogues all over the United States. Following his death, his funeral services were held on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.
Robert Merrill (1917?-2004), born Moishe Miller. He made his operatic debut in 1944 after years of singing at bar mitzvahs, weddings and on the radio as a crooner. He reached the Metropolitan Opera House in 1945. For years thereafter, he and Leonard Warren graced the Met stage as the two great American baritones. He had an extraordinarily beautiful voice and was perhaps more gifted in comedy than in drama, where Warren was supreme. Merrill was a natural singer rather than a particularly bright or clever one. In straight-forward roles, though, such as Marcello in "La Bohème," he could be amazingly effective--and so he is here on this recording.
Giorgio Tozzi (1913- ) was born in the Chicago area. He took early vocal training with the great Rosa Raisa. His debut in opera came with Benjamin Britten's "Rape of Lucretia"--but on Broadway. He first appeared on opera stages in Italy in 1953 and sang at the Met for the first time in 1955. His career in that house lasted until 1975. He was the leading American basso, successfully singing virtually all the major bass roles.
Mary Costa (1930- ) is a native of Knoxville. She is best-known beyond the opera world as Walt Disney's personal choice in 1952 for the voice of his Sleeping Beauty. Shortly before the premiere of the Disney film, she made her operatic debut in "The Bartered Bride." Not long after that, Leonard Bernstein found her "perfect" for his "Candide" leading to US tours and a season in London. She made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in 1959 and remained a leading soprano with that company for many years. I saw her in several roles over the years and was impressed each time. Although she regularly sang the regular leading soprano parts and did them well, she was identified with roles at the edge of the standard repertory in such operas as "Wozzeck," "Vanessa" and "The Rake's Progress." She was both a fine singer and a fine actress. From 2003-2006, she was a Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts. And as this recording demonstrates, she was born to portray Musetta.
Erich Leinsdorf, the famous disciplinarian, seems an unlikely choice for "La Bohème," but he confounds expectations by offering a warm, even Italianate performance.
On the whole, this is a fine recording of "La Bohème." It offers lush sound and a cast that demonstrates clearly just what the post-War Silver Age of American opera was all about.
Five solid stars.