I never thought that the supremacy of the Karajan studio recording could be challenged by any other, not even the excellent Callas/Di Stefano or De los Angeles/Bjorling versions, but of course I did not imagine that there could exist another recording featuring the same two artists in comparable sound - but here it is, in splendidly rich stereo at a bargain price. Furthermore, Pavarotti and Freni are in marginally fresher, more youthful voice which proves a trump card just where, for example, Callas or Bjorling are open to the accusation that they sound a little too mature.
This being a RAI studio broadcast, there is no audience intrusion and everything emerges with extraordinary clarity. This was Pavarotti's signature role; his top C wavers ever so slightly in the big aria but he is in his element. Freni has given us several surpassingly beautiful accounts of Mimi, but this could easily be the best. Schippers conducts with sensitivity and affection, although occasionally the effects he seeks sound a little too deliberate and applied. He lacks the easy, seamless grace of Karajan's subtle overview, does not creat magic as Karajan does in the snow-scene introduction to Act 3, nor does he quite have Karajan's ability to create an overwhelming impact in the climaxes - but it's still a very satisfactory interpretation. The veteran Bruscantini gives us a Marcello slightly dry of voice but verbally acute and brilliantly acted; Gianni Maffeo as Schaunard does a delightful English accent on "Incominciam" when he narrates the parrot-snuffing incident, and the supporting cast in general is strong. Ghiuselev's gruff Colline does not erase memories of Ghiaurov or Tozzi but he is wholly apt, and the Musetta of Rita Talarico - an artist of whom I have never previously heard but who is quite up to the vocal demands of the role - equally so, if just a little staid and shrill.
This would make a great gift for introducing a novice to opera (though the provision of a libretto would be advisable if you don't buy the luxury Opera d'Oro issue) and it makes a very desirable and affordable supplement for the more experienced opera lover, even if you already own a couple of recordings. A real Opera d'Oro winner.
Worth considering if you have the niggling thought that Karajan's Berliners are just that little bit too ample, too powerful for an opera production. Here are Pav and Freni a couple of years earlier and with the tragically short lived Schippers, an Italian production, and it all works a treat.
The Decca production has more glamour, but maybe this RAI version is that wee bit more theatrical.