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Recordings

La Bohème
08 Mar 2007

PUCCINI: La Bohème

With the distance of time, is it allowable to feel affection for Herbert von Karajan, beyond any respect — grudging or otherwise — for his long, starry career?

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

Mirella Freni. Adriane Martino, Gianni Raimondi, Rolando Panerai, Gianni Maffeo, Ivo Vinco, Carlo Badioli, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Herbert von Karajan (cond.). Stage Production and Set Design: Franco Zeffirelli

Deutsche Grammophon 073 407-1 [DVD]

$27.98  Click to buy

The opening of this filmed La Bohème prompts the question. First we see the facade of La Scala, from whence this staging — before being adapted to the soundstage of some film studio — originated, in 1965. And then we see the stern, handsome conductor, ostentatiously raising both his arms high to bring that baton down, the red of the house behind him contrasting with the glorious silver of his hair and the black of his tux.

What an ego, to appear before the film audience as if he were about to lead a live staging. As soon as the orchestra rips into the famous opening notes of Puccini’s score, and we are in the three walls of an old-fashioned movie studio “garret,” his image disappears, but his presence remains, not relinquishing any more of the spotlight to his singers and director/designer, Franco Zeffirelli, than necessary. No one could get away with this kind of thing today — but isn’t that at least partly because, few if any have the credentials and impact Karajan could boast of?

At any rate, this La Bohème DVD has treasurable qualities, with one big caveat. The singers mime to their recorded performances. As is often the case, the lip-syncing is erratic at best. More worryingly, there is a disconnect between the naturalism of film and a soundtrack that has no sense of immediacy, of place. Your reviewer found it hard to get involved through the first two acts, but finally succumbed to the eerie beauty of the act three set.

Among an excellent cast, Mirella Freni’s Mimi stands out as a classic portrayal. Looking both appropriately fragile and heart-meltingly lovely, she brings the very great added bonus of singing like an angel. If only she were not costumed in act four in a lovely, perfectly clean and well-pressed dress of baby-blue, with bonnet. She doesn’t look ill for a moment.

Gianni Raimondi’s passionate Rodolfo and Rolando Panerai’s energetic Marcello play off each other well. Adriana Martino manages to capture Musetta’s capricious nature without pushing into obnoxiousness, as some have done. Gianni Maffeo (Schaunard) and Ivo Vinco (Colline) fill out the cast ably.

The washed-out color reminds one of ‘60s TV shows. Yes, this is a dated production, but to some extent that just adds to its charm.

If the above-described demerits sound like dire warnings, stay away. Otherwise, this beloved opera has here an affectionate, rich rendering, thanks to Zefferelli, Freni and her co-stars, and also that faded figure from the long lost days when classical music mattered, Herbert von Karajan.

Chris Mullins

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