|About this Recording
8.111332-33 - PUCCINI, G.: Boheme (La) (Callas, Di Stefano, La Scala, Votto) (1956)
Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924)
Rodolfo - Giuseppe Di Stefano (tenor)
From its composition Puccini’s La bohème, which had its première in 1896, quickly established itself as one of the most popular operas. By August 1956, when it became the thirteenth complete recording that Callas took part in for Columbia/Angel and the twelfth with the company at La Scala, Milan, in the preceding sixty years Mimì had been undertaken by countless sopranos too numerous to mention. At this time it was a favourite of Renata Tebaldi (1922–2004) and Victoria de los Angeles (1923–2005), both of whom also recorded it. Callas, however, never sang it, at La Scala, or anywhere else. The record company’s principal concern was to add it, not so much to her repertory, as its own.
The company with her includes what should have been the perfect Rodolfo, Giuseppe di Stefano. His was one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the twentieth century, in a tradition that includes Caruso (1873–1921), Gigli (1890–1957), Björling (1911–1960) and Pavarotti (1935–2007). Unfortunately, only the same month he had been persuaded to record Manrico, in place of Richard Tucker (1913–1975), but it was too strenuous for him. In Bohème the effect of his undertaking it is all too apparent at the top, in ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘O soave fanciulla’, where his tone becomes open and forced sounding. The Musetta of Anna Moffo gives a very pleasingly sung interpretation; if not especially characteristic, it is altogether without the shrill overacting too familiar in the rôle. In Marcello and Colline Rolando Panerai and Nicola Zaccaria both give performances worthy of La Scala; the conducting too by Antonino Votto, if not exactly exceptional, is certainly unexceptionable.
At La Scala, Milan that year Callas had been singing Violetta, Rosina, and Giordano’s Fedora, as well as appearing as Lucia at the San Carlo, Naples and at the Staatsoper, Vienna, where she undertook it under Karajan. That summer she also recorded Leonora in Il trovatore with Karajan, and would later record Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, before making her New York début at the Met as Norma. Mimì, like Liù, is one of the least taxing leading rôles in the popular repertory; by Callas’s lights there is nothing much for her to do. The tessitura, range of expression, and dramatic devices, are all modest. The particular beauty of tone which Puccini’s music requires, and Mimì calls for, is not naturally suited to her. She shuts her voice down to half-cock using only about as much as she would for Amina in La sonnambula, although once or twice the real Callas slips out—or rather dribbles out. Nevertheless the refinement of her singing is obvious throughout. Take one example: in Act II, in the Caffè Momus scene, when she sings ‘Amare e dolce ancora più del miele’ (‘Love is sweeter than honey’) there is her rhythmic mastery to admire. It is the sensitivity of her musicianship that makes her phrasing so telling. If Callas’s Mimì is not one of her greatest assumptions it is still stamped throughout with her inimitability.
U.S. born Anna Moffo (1932–2006) was of Italian extraction. After beginning music studies at home, in 1953 she went to Italy to Perugia, where initially she took piano lessons. But her voice, as well as her attractive appearance, soon encouraged her to take up vocal study with Luigi Ricci and Mercedes Llopart. Her début took place at the Rome Opera in 1956; thereafter her progress was very rapid. During the next few years she appeared at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, San Carlo, Naples, La Scala, Milan, the Paris Opéra, Chicago, as Zerlina, Nannetta, Pamina and Mélisande, and by 1959 she made her bow at the Met as Violetta (which I saw). Already she was not only singing too often but undertaking too mature a repertory. She appears in numerous recordings, among the many, by Columbia/Angel of Le nozze di Figaro, Capriccio, Carmen and Falstaff; by Eurodisc, as Micaela and Lucia; by RCA of Madama Butterfly, La serva padrona, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and Thaïs; and by Ariola/Eurodisc of Iphigenie in Aulis. Hardly surprisingly by the mid-1970s she had a vocal crisis from which her career never properly recovered. She was married first to stage director Mario Lanfranchi, and then to Robert W. Sarnoff, Director of RCA.
Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921–2008), born near Catania, Sicily, had a brilliant but short career. His was one of the most beautiful lyric tenor voices of the last century. He began singing light music then, following a brief period of study with the baritone Luigi Montesanto, made his opera début in 1946 as Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon at Reggio Emilia, after which his rise to fame was rapid. In 1947 he appeared at La Scala, Milan, also as Des Grieux, and in 1948 at the Metropolitan, New York, as the Duke in Rigoletto. At first his repertory included Fenton in Falstaff, Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Alfredo in La traviata and Faust, but it did not take long before he began undertaking heavier rôles, such as Cavaradossi, Don José in Carmen, Radames in Aida, Canio in Pagliacci and even Alvaro in La forza del destino. Sadly the great years of his career were soon over, and by 1961, trying to make more out of his voice than nature had put in, he made his last appearance at La Scala. From 1944 for HMV he recorded songs and arias, and from 1953 for Angel/Columbia, with Callas, Edgardo, Arturo, Cavaradossi, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, Canio, the Duke, Manrico in Il trovatore, Rodolfo, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera and Des Grieux in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
The baritone Rolando Panerai (b.1924), born at Campi Bisenzio near Florence, had a long and distinguished career. After completing his studies in Florence and Milan with Armani and Tess, he made his début at the Comunale, Florence, in 1946 as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor. Thereafter his progress was rapid and extensive; in 1947 he appeared at the San Carlo, Naples; in 1952 at La Scala, Milan; in 1957 at the Salzburg Festival; in 1958 at San Francisco and in 1960 at Covent Garden, London. He sang elsewhere throughout Italy, and in Austria, Germany and France. His substantial repertory included Apollo in Gluck’s Alceste, the High Priest in Samson et Dalila, Mozart’s and Rossini’s Figaro, Masetto in Don Giovanni, Guglielmo in Così fan tutte, Paolo in Simon Boccanegra, Marcello in La bohème, di Luna in Il trovatore, Silvio in Pagliacci, Germont in La traviata and in 1962 at La Scala he created the titlerôle in Turchi’s Il buon soldato Svejk. Later in his career, in traditional fashion, he graduated from Ford to Falstaff and undertook Don Pasquale, and Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore. In a 1950 RAI broadcast he is Amfortas in Parsifal with Callas’s Kundry and, nearly half a century later, Germont in a telecast of La traviata conducted by Mehta. His voice was an attractive sounding but lyric instrument. For EMI [Columbia/Angel] with Callas, he recorded, as well as di Luna, Silvio in Pagliacci, Alfio and Marcello.
Born in Athens, after studying at the Conservatory, Nicola Zaccaria (1923–2007), made his début in 1949 as Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. Four years later he appeared at La Scala, Milan, as Sparafucile in Rigoletto. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he appeared in many leading Italian opera seasons: at Florence, Verona and Rome in the typical Italian repertory. In 1956 he was a guest at the Vienna Staatsoper and at the festival in Salzburg; and in 1957 at Covent Garden with Callas’s Norma he was Oroveso and in 1959 Creon with her Medea. His career was wide and embraced Cologne, Brussels, Ghent, Moscow, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Monte Carlo, Berlin and Dallas, which he returned to often until the 1980s, as well as festivals at Aix-en-Provence, Edinburgh, Orange and Athens. He sang rôles such as Zaccaria in Nabucco, Silva in Ernani, Rodolfo in La sonnambula and Sarastro in Zauberflöte. For EMI he appears with Callas in recordings of Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore, La bohème, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La sonnambula and Norma.
Born at Piacenza, Antonino Votto (1896–1985) was a student at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella, Naples. Following army service in World War I, in 1919 he commenced his career, as a pianist giving recitals there and in Rome. The same year he began teaching the piano in Trieste, where he also made his début as a conductor. In 1921 Ettore Panizza engaged him to conduct at the Colón, Buenos Aires. Back in Europe again in 1923 he joined the company at La Scala, Milan, conducting Manon Lescaut; thereafter he acted as Toscanini’s assistant until 1929. Throughout the 1930s he appeared at Covent Garden and elsewhere in Europe as well as still giving occasional piano recitals in Italy. After World War II he began to conduct regularly at La Scala, Milan. His complete recordings made for EMI, Cetra and DGG include Gioconda, La bohème, Un ballo in maschera, La sonnambula and La traviata.
The scene is a garret in the artists’ quarter of Paris. There is a large window, from which the roofs of houses can be seen, covered with snow. In the room there is a fireplace, a table, a small cupboard, a bookcase, four chairs, an easel, a bed, two candlesticks and many packs of cards. Rodolfo, a young poet, is looking out of the window, while Marcello is at work on his painting, The Passage of the Red Sea. His hands are cold, and he blows on them from time to time, to warm them.
 Marcello complains of the cold, but jokingly suggests revenge by drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Rodolfo admires the view from the window, the smoke from the chimneys, although their own stove is cold. Marcello continues his complaints about the cold and about the falseness of Musetta, and Rodolfo points out that love is like a stove that needs fuel. Marcello suggests burning one of the chairs.
 Rodolfo has a better idea: he will burn the play he has written, and the two sit warming themselves in front of the burning pages. The door opens and their friend, the philosopher Colline, comes in, stamping his feet. He throws a bundle of books on the table and complains that he has been unable to pawn anything because it is Christmas Eve, and the three of them joke about burning the play, as the second act goes on the fire. Rodolfo laments the end of his play and Colline moralises. The third act goes the way of the rest, as the flames die down.
 Two boys come in, one of them carrying food, wine and cigars and the other wood for the fire. The three friends seize on the provisions and Colline adds wood to the fire. The musician Schaunard comes in and throws down some coins, telling them of his good luck, how an English nobleman has employed him to play and sing to his parrot. The others interrupt his story, more interested in the provisions Schaunard has brought. He suggests that they should drink first at home and then go out to celebrate. Rodolfo locks the door and they go to the table and pour out wine.
 There is a knock at the door and their landlord Benoit announces himself. After a brief consultation they let him in and offer him a glass of wine. He has come for the quarter’s rent, but the young men constantly fill his glass and jest with him over his supposed amatory conquests. Benoit confesses his liking for a buxom girl, and at this point Marcello pretends to be angry, accusing him of immorality, and they push him towards the door, ironically wishing him a happy Christmas.
 Now the friends make ready to leave for the Café Momus. Rodolfo, however, must stay behind to finish an article, which will only take five minutes, and he holds a candle for the others to go down the stairs. Coming in again he shuts the door, clears a corner of the table and prepares to write, breaking off from time to time for thought, finding himself not in the mood for writing.
 There is a timid knock at the door and their neighbour Mimì comes in, seeking a light for her candle. She has a fit of coughing and is about to faint. Rodolfo makes her sit down and brings water to revive her. He offers her wine, which she reluctantly accepts and then makes to leave. She thanks Rodolfo and wishes him good evening.
 As she is leaving, Mimì finds she has dropped the key to her room. Her candle, which Rodolfo had lit for her, is blown out, and Rodolfo runs to bring his own from the table, but that too is blown out by the draught from the stairway. The room is in darkness. Rodolfo shuts the door and the two of them search for Mimì’s key, which Rodolfo finds and pockets.
 While they are still searching, Rodolfo touches Mimì’s hand, which he holds, telling her to wait until the moon shines brightly enough for them to see again. While they wait, he will tell her who he is, a poet and a writer, a man of imagination.
 Mimì tells her own story. Her real name is Lucia and she is a seamstress, embroidering flowers like the flowers of poets: she lives alone in a garret, where, after winter, she can welcome the first light of spring. She breaks off to apologise: she is just an importunate neighbour.
 Rodolfo’s friends shout out to him from below in the courtyard and he opens the window, allowing a few rays of moonlight into the room, and shouts down that he has nearly finished his work and will join them at the café with a friend.
 He sings in praise of Mimì’s beauty, as she stands in the moonlight: they are in love.
 The scene is a square in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Here many streets meet and here stands the Café Momus. The square is crowded with people, soldiers, servant-girls, children, students, working girls, gendarmes and so on. There are street-vendors, hawking their wares. Rodolfo and Mimì walk together, while Colline has a patch sewn on his old coat, Schaunard bargains with a scrap-dealer for a pipe and horn, while Marcello wanders from one vendor to another. The shops are decorated with tiny lamps, while outside the Café Momus there is a huge lantern, with customers sitting at tables outside the café. We hear the sound of the crowd, the hawkers selling oranges, chestnuts and trinkets, the crowd exclaiming in appreciation and street urchins adding their own noise to the din. Schaunard tries out the horn he has bought, which he thinks out of tune; Colline examines the repair now made to his coat and Rodolfo and Mimì move towards a bonnet shop, while Marcello delights in the busy scene.
 Mimì and Rodolfo talk together, while Marcello, Schaunard and Colline ask a waiter for a table, which is prepared for them. The voice of the hawker Parpignol is heard, while Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends, to their amusement.
 Parpignol approaches pushing a barrow of toys, decorated with flowers and paper lanterns. He is followed by an enthusiastic crowd of urchins. Mothers of children attempt to drag them away, but the children resist. The friends loudly order food and wine and Parpignol moves on, followed by the children. Marcello asks Mimì what Rodolfo has bought for her and she shows him her new bonnet. The others comment on Rodolfo’s talents as a lover, but a remark by Mimì briefly revives Marcello’s bitterness. They drink a toast, but as Marcello catches sight of his beloved Musetta, followed by a fussy, over-dressed, pompous old gentleman, he calls instead for poison.
 The old man, Alcindoro, follows Musetta breathlessly, like a servant, as he remarks, and Musetta takes the table next to the friends, where she makes her Lulu, as she calls him, sit down. They comment on her expensive clothes, while she tries to attract their attention, with increasing irritation. She calls the waiter, complains that the plate smells and throws it on the ground, while Alcindoro tries to calm her. Marcello tells Mimì that the girl is called Musetta and that she is notoriously fickle. Alcindoro tries to keep Musetta quiet and she complains that he is boring, while still seeking to attract the attention of Marcello. A group of working girls see her with her old admirer and burst out laughing. Eventually she can restrain herself no longer and addresses Marcello directly, to the delight of his friends, although Rodolfo and Mimì remain preoccupied with one another.
 Musetta, gazing at Marcello, now tells of her life, wandering along the street, admired by all the men. Alcindoro is horrified. Musetta continues to celebrate her conquests and the old man becomes more and more agitated. Mimì realises that Musetta is really in love with Marcello. Schaunard and Colline stand up to watch the scene and Marcello too is about to go, while Rodolfo and Mimì continue their own conversation. Suddenly Musetta calls out, pretending to feel a violent pain in her foot, and sends Alcindoro off to find a pair of boots for her instead of the tight shoes she is wearing. As soon as he goes, Musetta and Marcello fall into one another’s arms.
 A waiter brings the bill and the friends hand it round, as a march is heard in the distance. They feel for money, but have nothing. Musetta calls for her bill, as the marching patrol draws nearer, and tells the waiter to put the two together and give it to her friend Alcindoro, who will pay. The patrol marches into the square, led by a stalwart drum-major, and as they pass on they are followed by Marcello and Colline, carrying Musetta, without her shoe, Rodolfo and Mimì, with Schaunard blowing his new hunting-horn. Alcindoro comes back, carrying a carefully wrapped pair of new shoes, to be greeted by the waiter with the bill.
 The third act opens at the Barrière d’Enfer, by the toll-gate, with a tavern and streets leading off in either direction. The tavern sign is Marcello’s painting, The Passage of the Red Sea, with the title underneath At the Port of Marseilles. Light shines from the tavern window into a gloomy February dawn. The ground is covered in snow and the trees are grey and gaunt. There is an occasional sound of revelry from the tavern. A gang of street-sweepers approaches the toll-gate, calling for admission into the city, and one of the guards stirs himself and goes to open the gate. The men pass through and he closes the gate again. The sound of merriment comes from the tavern, singing accompanied by the clinking of glasses, followed by the voice of Musetta. A group of milk-women approaches the gate, which is opened for them, as the dawn grows lighter. They are followed by peasant-women, carrying baskets. The guards move their bench and brazier and at this moment Mimì appears. She reaches the first of the trees and bursts out into a violent fit of coughing.
 Mimì approaches the sergeant and asks him the name of the tavern where the painter is working. He shows her and as a serving-woman comes out of the tavern, she asks to speak to Marcello. Other people pass through the toll-gate and the matins bell of the Hospice of Ste Thérèse is heard. It is day at last, a gloomy, winter day.
 Couples leave the tavern, followed by Marcello, who greets Mimì in surprise. He explains that he earns his money by painting and Musetta by teaching the customers to sing. Mimì is looking for Rodolfo, who loves her but has left her, out of jealousy. Marcello advises her to part from Rodolfo for good and explains how he and Musetta are united by their own good humour. He will help her finally to part from Rodolfo, who now lies asleep on a tavern bench. She breaks into a fit of coughing again, to Marcello’s alarm, and tells him how Rodolfo has left her that night, telling her everything is finished.
 Mimì hides, as Rodolfo comes out, telling Marcello that he wants to leave Mimì, now that his love for her is dead, only to revive when he looks into her eyes. Marcello advises separation, if love brings such misery and jealousy.
 Rodolfo complains of Mimì’s behaviour, which Marcello doubts. Rodolfo is bound to agree.
 He goes on to declare that he really loves her, explaining about her illness and increasing weakness and approaching death. Mimì overhears all this. Rodolfo blames himself for the poor conditions in which she must live with him. She is like a rare flower, wilting in his poor room. Mimì is racked by another spasm of coughing and Rodolfo anxiously rushes towards her. Musetta’s laughter is heard from the tavern, as she flirts with the men there, and Marcello goes in.
 Mimì bids Rodolfo farewell: she must die and now she asks him to send her the few possessions she has left in his room, the presents he has given her. He can keep the little bonnet that she has treasured as a souvenir of their love.
 Rodolfo sadly parts from her, and they tenderly remember their love.
 There is the sound of breaking plates and glasses, and Marcello is heard angrily quarrelling with Musetta. The altercation between one pair of lovers accompanies the sorrowful parting of the other. Musetta’s quarrel with Marcello ends in her fury, as she shouts angrily at her lover and storms off, while he goes back into the tavern. The scene ends with the gentler parting of Rodolfo and Mimì.
 The four friends are together again in the garret where they all live again. Marcello is painting and Rodolfo is sitting at the table trying to write. Rodolfo has seen Musetta riding in a carriage and finely dressed, and she has told him that she has no feeling of love: her finery is compensation enough. Marcello tries to force a laugh, but is upset. He tells Rodolfo that he has seen Mimì riding in a carriage, and dressed up like a queen. Rodolfo is equally annoyed and curses his pen, which he throws onto the floor, as Marcello throws down his brush and secretly takes out a bunch of ribbons that he kisses.
 Rodolfo, to himself, laments the loss of Mimì, taking out the bonnet that he keeps to remember her by. Marcello too is haunted by his memory of Musetta.
 They wonder how soon Schaunard will be back. At this point the latter comes in carrying bread and accompanied by Colline with a paper bag, from which he takes out a herring. They all sit down at the table and pretend that they are at a banquet, water serving for champagne, the salted fish for salmon and the bread for parrots’ tongues.
 The mock banquet is to be followed by singing and dancing, as Schaunard announces, and the mock-ball begins, leading to a feigned quarrel and duel with fireirons between the musician and the philosopher.
 Their merriment is interrupted by the sudden arrival of Musetta, who brings with her Mimì, now seriously ill and unable to climb the stairs unaided. The men help her in and make her as comfortable as they can on a bed that they drag forward. Musetta explains to the others how she had heard that Mimì had left her protector, the old viscount, and was destitute and dying. She has just found her, exhausted and begging to be taken once again to Rodolfo so that she may die near him. Mimì is happy now and embraces Rodolfo. Musetta asks what they can give Mimì, but the friends have nothing, no wine and no coffee.
 Mimì complains of the cold: she has no feeling in her hands, which Rodolfo, as once before he had done, tries to warm in his own. Schaunard and Colline sit apart, sadly, while Musetta takes off her ear-rings and tells Marcello to go quickly and sell them, to buy medicine for Mimì and to pay for a doctor.
 Musetta and Marcello leave the room and Colline philosophically plans to part with his coat to raise money. He and Schaunard leave the lovers together.
 Mimì opens her eyes and asks if the others have gone: she has much to say to Rodolfo and embraces him. She asks if she is still beautiful and he tells her that she is as beautiful as dawn.
 Together they recall their first meeting and their love for one another, as she repeats his words to her, as he first held her hand. Schaunard returns.
 He is followed by Musetta, who asks if Mimì is sleeping. Marcello has brought medicine and Musetta gives Mimì her muff, which she thinks is from Rodolfo. Mimì seems to sleep, while Musetta prepares the medicine with a spirit lamp on the table and murmurs a prayer. Schaunard approaches Mimì and realises that she is dead but Rodolfo is the last to see the truth, as he throws himself on Mimì’s body in his final grief.
The principal source for the complete recording of La bohème was a first edition British LP set, with some patches taken from later American pressings. The album of love duets was transferred from Italian LPs. Both recordings feature occasional pops and distortion during loud passages that appear to be inherent to the original master tapes.
CD 1 79:02
VERDI: Otello (Act 1)
MASCAGNI: Iris (Act 2)
BIZET: Carmen (Act 1)
BIZET: Les pêcheurs de perles (Act 2)
GOUNOD: Faust (Act 3)
Rosanna Carteri (soprano)
Milan Symphony Orchestra • Antonio Tonini
Recorded 5 June 1957 in Milan
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