PUCCINI: La BohÃ¨me (Bjorling, de los Angeles, Beecham) (1956) (Naxos Historical: 8.111249-50)
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Great Opera Recordings
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Lyrical scenes in four acts
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa after Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger
Rodolfo - Jussi Björling (tenor)
Mimì - Victoria de los Angeles (soprano)
Marcello - Robert Merrill (baritone)
Musetta - Lucine Amara (soprano)
Schaunard - John Reardon (baritone)
Colline - Giorgio Tozzi (bass)
Benoît - Fernando Corena (bass)
Alcindoro - Fernando Corena (bass)
Parpignol - William Nahr (tenor)
Customs Official - Thomas Powell (baritone)
Sargeant - George Del Monte (baritone)
RCA Victor Chorus (Chorus Master: Thomas Martini)
The Columbus Boychoir (Director: Herbert Huffman)
RCA Victor Orchestra
Sir Thomas Beecham
Puccini had achieved international fame with his version of Manon Lescaut following its première in Turin in February 1893. When exactly the composer began work on his next opera La Bohème is somewhat vague but it is known that he and his contemporary Leoncavallo met in Milan in March 1893 and revealed that both composers were in the process of writing an opera based on Henry Murger's novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, published in 1851.
It is known that the librettist Giuseppe Giacosa had begun working on a prose sketch for a libretto of La Bohème in late 1892 and later took on board Luigi Illica to work on the project. (Both composers had contributed to Manon Lescaut.) The resulting opera endured many problems in its creation not least because of Puccini's determination to get his own way. Eventually the work was completed in the latter part of 1895. Incidentally, Leoncavallo continued his version of the opera and this was eventually first given in Venice in May 1897. Sadly his version, whilst more truthful to Murger's original and musically most accomplished, lacks that touch of genius Puccini gave to his work. Puccini's opera was first produced at the Teatro Regio, Turin on 1 February 1896 conducted by the 28-year-old Arturo Toscanini. The British première took place in Manchester on 22 April the following year, sung in English.
Set in Paris during the 1830s, the four short contrasting acts cover a period of little more than three months, from Christmas Eve to the following spring. The opera was to prove a turning-point in Puccini's career and in the ensuing century or more the work has laid claim to be one of the most popular operas. Why should it be so? It has comedy, tragedy, exuberance, warmth, cold, happiness, love, pathos, despair. The characters are so real that an audience can immediately be drawn into the plot and environment. Set in Paris in the Latin Quarter, the libretto catches the ever-changing character of Bohemian life in a masterly fashion. Then each act within its less than thirty-minute span contains such a wide variety of emotions and feelings. For example, the contrasting exuberance of the inseparable quartet of Rodolfo the poet, Marcello the painter, Colline the philosopher and Schaunard the musician and their pranks with the landlord Benoît, against the delicacy and tenderness of Mimì and Rodolfo and their growing love. The noisy and boisterous second act, set in a square, and centred on the Café Momus, has street vendors, students, ordinary citizens going about their daily lives, children, the passing military parade contrasted with the larger than life character of Musetta, her aged roué Alcindoro and her former lover Marcello. The magical third act opens with the depiction of cold and falling snow at a gate-house of Paris on the road to Orléans. This is contrasted with the goings-on at the nearby tavern outside which Mimì and Rodolfo argue, make up and part, and the noisy and argumentative Musetta and Marcello. The wonderfully poignant closing moments of this act have the voices of Mimì and Rodolfo receding into the distance. The fourth act returns to the garret of the four male bohemians. The opening duet with Rodolfo and Marcello in which they voice their longing for their lost loves, is in contrast to the boisterous antics of all four men, dramatically interrupted by the arrival of Musetta and her announcement that Mimì is dying. The closing ten minutes of the opera are desperately sad, poignant and most moving. It is therefore little wonder that the opera has remained so popular when Puccini lavished on it such poignant and memorable music which so perfectly suits the text.
The story behind the making of this recording of La Bohème is, half a century on, remarkable and astonishing. Sir Thomas Beecham had returned to recording for EMI in November 1955 even before the start date of his new contract with the company, that took place with effect from 1 January 1956. It was then discovered that the conductor, the soprano Victoria de los Angeles and tenor Jussi Björling would all be in New York in March and April that year. EMI and their then American licensees RCA Victor immediately put in hand plans to make a studio recording of the opera during that period. No stage performances took place prior to the recording and the three artists joined forces with various American singers to make this historic version with the chorus of the New York City Opera and a pick-up orchestral group which included various members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. The recording was made over a three-week period in the Ballroom of the Manhattan Center, a venue much used by RCA at the time. Sadly the recording was only made in mono sound, although RCA did use an experimental two-track mono technique to record the voices on one and the orchestra on another, thereby allowing them the opportunity to rebalance the voices against orchestra after the recording, if necessary, and thus avoiding expensive studio time on rerecording. The resulting recording was hailed as a remarkably successful achievement and as such has remained available over the past half century.
When the recording was first released in Britain the reviewer in The Gramophone remarked of Beecham's reading of the score that "there is no more grandly eloquent handling of the adorable music" and further commented that "Beecham's power of reviving music is indescribable ... Time and again this score too is 're-heard' as one sees a picture 'with a rinsed eye' as the French say". Of the singers " Victoria de los Angeles sounds wonderful ... and Björling is likewise wonderful in being so reliable and stylish over every hurdle. Lucine Amara ... is a peculiarly sweet-voiced Musetta in character and Merrill's singing, as singing, delights me". The concluding sentence comments: "One goes head over heels in love with the opera all over again".
The Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005) was born in Barcelona and later studied in that city. Her formal début was in 1945 as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. After winning the Geneva International Singing Competition in 194