Rodolfo was the role of Pavarotti's debut in his home town of Modena, and it was one he kept in his repertoire until the mid-nineties. This recording, from 1972, catches him in his prime, at the age of 37, and the voice is ideally poised between lyric and heroic. Long familiarity with the part, his superlative diction and thrillingly easy high notes, combine to make him the most completely satisfying Rodolfo on record. Bjoerling comes close with Beecham (EMI), but the voice lacks italianate bite. Bergonzi, Gedda and Domingo, though each possessing many virtues, fail to draw you into the world of the young poet as Pavarotti does.
He is equalled in every regard by Freni's exquisite Mimi. This, along with her Butterfly for Karajan (Decca), represents the great Modenese soprano at her best. Her long friendship with the tenor pays huge dividends, and she rivals Callas (EMI) in the huge emotional range she achieves. Listen to the variety of colour she brings to "Donde lieta" and the heart-stopping tenderness she achieves on the word 'bada' - de los Angeles (EMI) attempts something similar with Beecham, but the result is cloying.
Panerai, in his third recording of Marcello, is robust and alert, vividly conveying the painter's dog-like adoration of Harwood's Mussetta. The English soprano, sadly neglected on record, catches the 'tart-with-a-heart' essence of the woman, and combines with the excellent Ghiaurov and Matteo to produce an almost unbearably poignant fourth act.
Karajan avoids any of the exaggeration which often marred his later operatic recordings. He evidently adores the piece, and draws magnificent playing from the BPO. The sound production is of demonstration quality.
None of the more recent recordings is worth serious consideration - this is the Boheme to have on your shelf.