I don’t know if Puccini’s La Boheme is the most often recorded opera ever written, but if it isn’t, it has got to be one of the prime contenders for that honor. The tragic lovers have been sung by most every significant soprano and tenor of the past century, many more than once: Callas and Freni, Victoria de Los Angeles and Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Jussi Bjorling, and Gigli and Pavarotti. And these are only a few. It has been recorded by nearly all of the world’s greatest opera companies under the baton of the world’s greatest conductors — Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, James Levine. You name the artists, it is more than likely they have recorded the opera, if not the complete four acts, at least the highlights.
Why then, you might ask, why then does the world need still another recording. It is not as though none of the previous performances were any good. Recording after recording has been praised for musicianship, sound quality, drama, and general artistic quality. There are recordings that are legendary, like Beecham’s with Bjorling and de Los Angeles. There are recordings that are becoming legendary, like Herbert von Karajan’s with the Berlin Philharmonic and Mirella Freni and Pavarotti. And of course there are those that … well the less said about those the better.
Now along comes Sony Classical with a remastered two disc recording of the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast performance of February 15, 1958 with Thomas Schippers conducting the Met Orchestra and Chorus. So one has to ask why — and there is really only one answer. You can never have too much of a good thing. Great art does not fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. A fine performance is its own justification. You can’t have too many Hamlets, and you can’t have too many La Bohemes. Great artists always have something of their own to bring to a great work, something that makes the work their own.
And these leading singers are excellent. Soprano Licia Albanese sings Mimi. Perhaps most famous for her interpretation of Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, a role in which she debuted at the Met in 1940, she was equally noted for her portrayal of the doomed Mimi. While perhaps a little old for the part in 1958, her voice remains young and she manages to capture all the pathos of the situation. Donde lieta usci, the Act III aria in which she says farewell to her jealous lover is masterful and truly affecting, as is her work at the end of Act IV. If she doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, no one will. Rodolpho, Mimi’s poet/lover, is played by tenor Carlo Bergonzi. He has the kind of powerful voice the role demands, and he does full justice to what may well be the signature aria of the opera, Che gelida manina, as well as the finale of the first act, O soave fanciulla.
The supporting cast is made up of Met stalwarts. Laurel Hurley is the coquettish Musetta. She makes the most of her shining moment in the second act with an exciting Quando me’n vo’. Marcello, the artist, is sung by the dynamic Mario Sereni. Norman Scott and Clifford Harvuot round out the rest of the Bohemian crew with professional vigor.
There are reasons why this opera is so popular, why it has been recorded so often. Puccini’s music is passionate, gorgeous and most of all accessible. The libretto, based on Henry Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, is affectingly sentimental. It is nearly impossible to listen to the end of the first act without chills and the end of the last act without damp eyes. When sung well, it is a magical work. This is a performance in which it is sung well.