|About this Recording
8.110252-53 - PUCCINI: Bohème (La) (Tebaldi) (1951)
Giocomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Prior to the introduction of the long-playing record in 1948, The Decca Record Company in London had recorded just one complete opera, Dido and Aeneas in 1936. The company had begun recording in February 1929 with its first release in June the same year. During the 1930s, however, it was seen very much as a minor competitor to its main UK rival, EMI. In the immediate post World War II era, the company undertook an impressive programme of new classical recordings with their newly introduced Full Frequency Range Recording technique, which had been developed as a result of war-time research requirements. The new LP era would bring the Decca/London label into the league of big players in the world of classical recorded music.
This 1951 recording of La Bohème was the first of Decca’s recordings of complete Italian operas, made in the Rome Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. The hall in which the recording was made is long and narrow, with a very high ceiling and a fine balcony, which also contains seats. The venue proved ideal for mono recording with the control room in adjoining room on the same ground floor level.
The singing throughout the recording displays an uncommon taste and intelligence in that all the performers observe the composer’s dynamic markings of pianissimo and dimuendo. Much of the credit for this attention to detail must come from Erede’s careful rehearsals. In addition the engineers handle the balance between voices and orchestra sensitively, a point not always achieved in mono only recording.
The Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi (b. 1922) had begun recording for the Company in 1949 and had by now an exclusive contract. She was one of the most significant Italian lyric sopranos of the time and would enjoy a recording career spanning almost 25 years. Her first recording of La Bohème (she would recorded the work in stereo eight years later) is notable for the youthful freshness and richness of her voice. She also conveys much delicacy in her interpretation of Mimì, especially in the first act. The death scene is also movingly portrayed.
The glamorous Viennese soprano Hilde Gueden (1919-1988), another of Decca’s young and up-and-coming exclusive artists, was an unexpected choice for the rôle of Musetta but proves inspired casting as hers is not the usual shrill Italian soprano voice so often heard in the part. Later she would gravitate to the role of Mimì. She would later sing the rôles of Musetta and Mimì in successive seasons at the Metropolitan during 1952 and 1953.
The tenor Giacinto Prandelli (b. 1914) was one of a number of new Italian tenors to emerge after the end of the War in Europe, having made his debut in 1942. If not endowed with the most mellifluous of voices, he always used his clear light-voiced tenor with much taste and refinement, and his portrayal of the poet Rodolfo is both sensitive and youthful. Sadly, he was never a prolific recording artist.
The veteran Giovanni Inghilleri (1894-1959) had enjoyed a considerable European and American career during earlier decades and had sung Amonasro in the 1928 recording of Aida. He would also take part in the concurrently recorded Madama Butterfly for Decca.
The Rumanian Raffaele Arie (born 1920), a fine lyrical Colline, was amongst the most significant basses in two decades after 1945 and recorded quite extensively for a number of companies during this period.
The Italian bass-baritone Melchiorre Luise (1898-1967) enjoyed a long and successful career in performing buffo roles throughout Europe, some of which he recorded to much acclaim.
Born of a Turkish father and Italian mother, the Swiss-born Fernando Corena (1916-1984) had originally planned to enter the church but was encouraged to take up singing. Making his debut in 1943, he possessed fine linguistic skills and was a witty comedian in both serious and buffo roles, singing particularly in the United States and Italy. He recorded extensively between 1950 and 1970.
The conductor Albert Erede (1908-2001) was well known both in Italy and Britain, and had conducted at Glyndebourne in 1938-39 and from 1946 to 1949 was musical director of the short-lived New London Opera Company, based at the Cambridge Theatre in London. He also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York between 1950 and 1954. Later he was Generalmusikdirector at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein from 1958 to 1962 in addition to conducting Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 1968.
The brisker tempi adopted by Alberto Erede are nearer to those used by Toscanini in his 1946 broadcast. Theese appear faster than possibly we are accustomed to 50 years on. However Erede had observed the older conductor’s working methods from the years he spent in Salzburg as musical director of its Opera Guild (1935-38).
The highlights selection which conclude the second CD are valuable in that it gives us the golden voice of Giuseppe di Stefano (b.1921) as Rodolfo at the zenith of his powers. He quite simply possessed all the gifts for this romantic rôle in the early 1950s. His top register was exciting and vibrant, his mezza-voce velvety in texture, his diction perfect, his musicianship sound and his stage presence admirable. Sadly RCA did not record him in the rôle complete as they already had a 1946 Toscanini broadcast performance on their catalogue at the time. His Mimì, the Italian-born Licia Albanese (b. 1908) had already recorded the opera twice in 1938 and 1946 but as she was one of the most important members of the Metropolitan Opera at the time and also an exclusive RCA artist, it was natural that she would take part. Leonard Warren (1911-1960) was the principal Italian baritone at the Metropolitan by this time and his bronzed, healthy voice together with its huge, vibrant upper register made him ideal for Marcello. Patrice Munsel (b.1925) had been the youngest ever-principal soloist at the time of her début in 1943 at the Metropolitan, where she would continue to sing until 1958. She also starred and sang in the film biography of Melba, made in Britain in 1953. This is the first time these excerpts from La Bohème have been released in their composite entirety outside the United States.
 The scene is an attic of a house in the artists’ quarter of Paris. There is a large window from which can be seen the roofs of houses, covered with snow. In the room there is a fire-place, a table, a small cupboard, a book-case, 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 his fingers from time to time, to warm them. Marcello complains of the cold, but jokingly suggests revenge by drowning Pharaoh in the Red Sea. Rodolfo, meanwhile, admires the view from the window, the smoke from the chimneys, although their own stove is cold. Marcello continues to complain of the cold and the falseness of Musetta, and Rodolfo points out that love is like a stove that needs a great deal of fuel. Marcello suggests burning one of the chairs, but Rodolfo, preventing him, 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 onto the table. He complains that he has been unable to pawn his property because it is Christmas Eve, and the three friends joke about the burning play. Rodolfo laments briefly the end of his drama, and Colline moralises, 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 are amazed, and seize on the provisions, while Colline carries the wood to the fire. The musician Schaunard comes in, and throws some coins on the ground, telling his friends of his good luck, how an English nobleman has employed him to play and sing to his parrot. The others interrupt the 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 closes the door and they go to the table to pour out wine.  At this point there are two knocks at the door, and the landlord Benoit announces himself. After a brief consultation they let him in and offer him a glass of wine. Benoit has come for the quarter’s rent, but the young men constantly fill up his glass and jest with him over his amatory conquests. Benoit confesses his liking for a buxom girl, and at this point Marcello with feigned anger interrupts and accusing him of immorality they push him towards the door, ironically wishing him a happy Christmas. Now they make ready to leave for the Café Momus.  Rodolfo, however, must stay behind to finish an article, which will only take him five minutes, and he holds a candle for the others to descend 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. 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. Rodolto makes her sit down and brings water to revive her. He offers her wine, which she reluctantly accepts, and then seeks to leave. She thanks Rodolfo and wishes him good evening, but then finds she has dropped the key of 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 on the staircase. The room is in darkness. Rodolfo shuts the door and the two of them search for Mimì’s key, which Rodolfo finds and pockets.  As they search, Rodolfo touches Mimì’s hand, which he holds, telling her to wait until the moon shines brightly enough for them to see again. He will tell her who he is, while they wait, a poet and a writer, a man of imagination.  Now Mimì tells her own story. Her real name is Lucia and she is a seamstress, embroidering flowers like the flowers of the 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 cafe with a friend.
 Rodolfo sings in praise of Mimì’s beauty, as she stands in the moonlight: the two are in love.
 It is Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the scene is a square, where many streets meet, at one side the Café Momus. The place 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. Colline stands by a rag-shop, Schaunard outside a tinker’s, buying a pipe and horn, while Marcello wanders from one to another. The shops are decorated with tiny lamps, while outside the Café Momus there is a huge lantern, with customers sitting at the tables outside the cafe. 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 repairs now made to his coat and Rodolfo and Mimì move towards a bonnet-shop, while Marcello delights in the busy scene. The friends approach the cafe, amid the hubbub, but can find no table outside. Meanwhile a shopkeeper standing on a stool offers underclothing and nightcaps for sale, to the amusement of the urchins. Colline, Marcello and Schaunard come out of the café carrying a table, followed by a waiter with chairs. The noise they make annoys some of the townspeople sitting there, and they leave. The voice of the hawker Parpignol is heard in the distance, while Rodolfo and Mimì rejoin their friends.  Now Rodolfo introduces Mimì to the others, his new inspiration, to their amusement. Parpignol now approaches, pushing a barrow of toys, decorated with flowers and paper lanterns, and followed by an enthusiastic crowd of urchins.  The mothers of the children attempt to drag them away, but the children resist. The friends order from the waiter, 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 her 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. The friends comment on Musetta’s expensive clothes and Marcello explains her inconstant character, while she tries to attract their overt attention with increasing irritation, She calls to the waiter, complains that her plate smells and throws it on the ground, while Alcindoro tries to calm her. Alcindoro orders supper, while Musetta complains that he is boring. A group of working girls see her, with her old admirer, and burst out laughing. Eventually Musetta can restrain herself no longer and confronts 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, while Musetta continues to celebrate her conquests, and he becomes more and more agitated. Mimì realises that Musetta is really in love with Marcelio, and now 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 the bill 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, and Schaunard blowing his 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, with streets leading off in either direction. The tavern sign is Marcello’s painting, The Passage of the Red Sea, written 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 a brazier, with custom-house officers seated by it, snoring. There is an occasional sound of revelry from the tavern. A gang of street-sweepers approach the toll-gate and call for admittance to the city, and one of the officials 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 approach the gate, which is opened for them, as the dawn grows lighter. They are followed by peasant-women, carrying baskets.  The officials move their bench and brazier, and at this moment Mimì comes in. She reaches the first of the trees, and bursts out into a violent fit of coughing and then 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 money by painting and Musetta by teaching the customers to sing. Mimì is looking for Rodolfo, who loves her but now 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 agrees, and goes on to recount his true love for her, her illness and increasing weakness and approaching death, all this overheard by Mimì. Rodolfo blames himself for the poor conditions in which she must live with him. Mimì is like a rare flower, wilting in Rodolfo’s poor room. Mimì is racked by another spasm of coughing, and Rodolfo rushes towards her, anxious. 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 Rodolfo 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. While they 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 sad 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 scene is as in the first act. In the attic where the friends live together again, Marcello is painting and Rodolfo 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 he has seen Mimì riding in a carriage, 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 laments Mimì’s falseness, and Marcello regrets his lost love. The former takes out of the table-drawer Mimì’s bonnet, which he clasps to his heart,
 but tries to conceal his feelings from Marcello, asking what time it is, as they await the return of Schaunard, who now comes into the room carrying bread, and accompanied by Colline, with a paper bag, from which he takes out a herring. The friends sit down at the table and pretend that they are at a banquet, water serving for champagne, and the salted fish for salmon, the bread for parrots’ tongues. The mock feast is to be followed by singing and dancing, as Schaunard announces, and the mock-ball begins, leading to a feigned quarrel and duel with fire-irons 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. 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, meanwhile, 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 feels: she has no feeling in her hands, which Rodolfo, as once before he had done, tries to warm them in his own. Schaunard and Colline sit apart, sadly, while Musetta takes off her earrings 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, telling Schaunard that they should leave Rodolfo and Mimì alone.  The two lovers recall their first meeting, when Mimì first told Rodolfo her name. She reminds him of how the candle had blown out and how she had lost her key, and then how he had warmed her hands in his. She is shaken by another spasm of coughing, and falls back. Rodolfo cries out and at this moment Schaunard returns. Mimì assures them she will soon be well, and now Musetta and Marcello come in, she with a muff for Mimì’s hands and he with medicine. Mimì gently falls asleep and Rodolfo is for a moment reassured. 8 Rodolfo moves to join his friends, softly asking Marcello what the doctor had said, while Musetta prepares the medicine, murmuring a prayer for Mimì as she does so. It is too late. Colline and Schaunard realise that Mimì is dead, but the truth only dawns on Rodolfo when his friend Marcello urges him to be brave. Frantic with grief, Rodolfo throws himself on her body.
Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings.
Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.
There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.
The complete recording of La Bohème with Tebaldi was transferred from the best portions of several British LP pressings. There are some occasional thumps, electronic clicks, distortion and noticeable edits inherent in the original master tape which appear on all pressings. In addition, Decca’s masters contained some electrical mains hum which I felt could not be filtered out entirely without adversely affecting the warm bass response one hears on the LP issues of this recording.
The highlights disc was transferred from a “Shaded Dog” LP edition. It is interesting to note that, save for four Neapolitan songs and the live recording of the Verdi Requiem under Toscanini, these are the only commercial recordings di Stefano made in America.
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