Friday, February 15, 2013

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

As with the blues, opera is only a recent, budding (but rapidly so) interest.  Moreover, as an admitted bargain hunter, YHB has mainly been dipping the proverbial toe in the water with budget-label productions.

That said, the Opera D'Oro imprint of the Columbia River Entertainment Group based in Portland, Oregon has released many older recordings of classic operas.  This one, of Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece La Bohème, dates from a performance in July 1969 in Rome by the RAI Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Rome, conducted by Thomas Schippers.

The star performers on this 4-act, 2-disc set are Modena, Italy natives and childhood compatriots Mirella Freni (1935-    ) and Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), who play Mimi, a sickly seamstress, and Rodolfo, a struggling poet, who live in the same ramshackle Paris building and whose passionate love affair, brought forth on a cold Christmas Eve, is torn asunder by his jealous nature and the fights that ensue. 

Comedic foils, Musetta and Marcello, whose relationship has also been strained, try to help reconcile the lovers, which is finally accomplished at the end of the third act.  Alas, while the final fourth act has Rodolfo and Marcello jovially musing on the nature of women, Musetta brings a dying Mimi to his garret. 

While Musetta and a friend of Rodolfo's go to pawn possessions to summon a doctor, the lovers tenderly talk about their relationship and Mimi softly goes to sleep.  As Rodolfo covers the windows with blankets to keep out a bitter draft and then returns to check on his lover, he is shocked to learn that she passed away in her sleep.

It is easy with modern digital recording technology and superior playback equipment to be disappointed in the quality of the sound from a performance taped almost 45 years ago.  Not one to get too caught up in the admittedly attractive aspects of advanced sound quality (after all, to hear, as just one example, Louis Armstrong play with the Hot Fives in recordings from the mid-1920s is a thrilling experience no matter how primitive the technology), the orchestra and singers are outstanding.

As a novice, the only recognizable name to this listener was that of the "King of the High Cs," Pavarotti, who is stunning in his power, clarity and evocation of emotion.  Freni is a wonder, as well, and the support provided by Rita Talarico as Musetta and Sesto Bruscantino as Marcello is beautifully rendered.

Puccini, of course, created some of opera's most endearing works in addition to La Bohème, including Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Tosca, all of which have been enjoyed by this listener within the last year or more.  La Bohème, which followed the well-known Manon Lescaut (1893), in its premiere at Turin in 1896 was not particularly highly regarded by critics and audiences.  Over time, though, it has become the most popular of the maestro's impressive catalog of operatic works.  Beautiful, impressionable melodies abound and the power, fullness and range from tragic to comic themes in the orchestration are remarkable.

As this listener becomes more familiar with opera, it will be useful to revisit the works that have been explored in these formative stages once more exposure and seasoning has set in as well as to see performances live (having only done so twice and these close to twenty years ago.)  For now, La Bohéme has had a strong impact on this developing neophyte enthusiast.

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