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Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, April 2009

On the face of it the two sopranos on this Bohème should have reversed their roles. Anna Moffo, the Musetta here, recorded Mimi a few years later—and with great success too. As Musetta Moffo is also very attractive, singing with purity and creamy tone. Though others have made more of the comic and tragic moments it is still a fine performance. Callas did nothing half-heartedly and while she lacks the warmth of Victoria de los Angeles or Mirella Freni she draws a nuanced and human portrait of the little seamstress. Her scaled down Mi chiamano Mimi is delivered with perfect legato and the intensity of her singing in act III is truly heartrending. In the last act—from Sono andati—some glaring fortissimo notes stick out like sore thumbs but her soft intimate singing is marvellous and throughout she employs her ‘little’ voice. A memorable portrait to set beside her Butterfly for instance.

Giuseppe Di Stefano should nominally have been a superb Rodolfo and there is a lot to admire in his reading. He is sensitive and caring in the first meeting with Mimi and in the third act confrontation there is a lot of sensitive singing. The honeyed final notes of Che gelida manina are ravishing and the duet has some beautiful soft singing…There is no denying his engagement and intensity and few Rodolfos have appeared as ardent as Di Stefano—but there is a price to pay. The opposite pole, careful blandness, is no less desirable but singers like Gigli, Tagliavini, Björling, Bergonzi, Tucker, Gedda and Pavarotti have shown that intensity doesn’t exclude polish. He is at his best though in the beginning of the act IV, the duet with Marcello and the dancing scene where all four Bohemians are markedly exhilarated.

Rolando Panerai is an excellent Marcello, expressive, sonorous, nuanced and easily recognizable. He repeated the role sixteen years later for Karajan. He was just as good there, though unavoidably somewhat more elderly sounding. His duet scenes with Mimi and Rodolfo in act III are superb.

Manuel Spatafora is not a particularly memorable Schaunard but it is also an ungrateful role. The reliable Nicola Zaccaria is on the other hand a good Colline, crowning his achievement with a moving ‘Coat aria’.

Antonino Votto has always been looked down upon as a capable second-rater. He leads the proceedings in a…well, middle-of-the-road manner: sensible tempos, no eccentricities, just good unobtrusive music-making. I can’t understand why this shouldn’t be applauded.

…Through squeezing the first three acts onto CD 1 room was found on CD 2 for a substantial filler: a 49-minute-long recital LP with duets sung by Rosanna Carteri and Giuseppe Di Stefano. When the same recital was issued just a few months ago on a three-disc EMI box with Di Stefano recordings, I wrote: ‘For some reason I didn’t warm especially to either of them (the duets from Les Pêcheurs de perles) but with the big love duet that concludes the first act of Otello it was another matter. Carteri seemed moderately involved, even though she has the right voice for Desdemona, but Di Stefano surprises greatly, opening the duet with restraint and singing throughout sensitively and with ‘face’, obviously fascinated by a role that he shouldn’t have essayed on stage—but in fact did. Once! I wouldn’t have liked to hear his Esultate! or the big outbursts in the following acts but this duet finds Otello for once in lyrical mood and doesn’t put too much pressure on the voice.

If Carteri seemed rather uninterested in Otello’s declaration of love she is really lovely and subtle in the long duet from Iris. This opera has never been very successful on stage but there is a lot of fine music in it and it is very grateful for the soprano. Di Stefano is involved of course—he rarely sang a dull note—but hardly subtle. His Don José—a role that he excelled in during the late 1950s—is strong and reliable but even here it is Carteri’s Micaela that steals the show. The garden scene from Faust, sung in Italian as all the French excerpts, is glowing’

Ralph Moore
MusicWeb International, February 2009

1956 was the fiftieth anniversary of the première of “La Bohème”. In that same year two celebrated recordings were made: this one and the Beecham set, generally acknowledged as a great success despite the occasional blemish in ensembles—testament to the speed at which it was recorded once its distinguished cast had been hastily assembled to record in between other engagements. This recording, however, was clearly executed with great care and affection. Nothing Callas ever recorded was ever less than painstakingly prepared—even though she never actually performed the rôle of Mimì on stage. Similarly, although Votto might not have had Beecham’s élan and charisma, he was very experienced and phrases tenderly. He brings plenty of flexible rallentandi into this leisurely account and allowing his singers time to make their points. He instantly establishes an authentic Christmas Eve ambience and at the start of Act III, the liquid flutes, haunting pizzicatos and harp create exactly the right, hushed aural image of a snow-scene; only in the more rumbustious passages does one wish for a touch of Beecham’s verve and swagger. In truth, Votto can be just a little dull and lacking in sparkle—and he also stands convicted of what “Gramophone” huffily describes as a “monstrous unwritten crescendo” at the end of Act I; guilty as charged and presumably a habit acquired in the theatre to prevent unwanted premature applause—but artistically vulgar.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration of mono LPs here is certainly wholly acceptable: distinct and slightly distant, with all the details emerging cleanly and virtually no distortion. I admit to finding my electronically reprocessed, phoney “stereo” version of the Beecham on the Membran label to be even better, but sound is not an issue in either set; the quality of the performances soon sweeps you away…I have, in the past, under-estimated the Columbia/EMI recording and this Naxos re-issue has provided an opportunity to reassess its virtues. The surprise for me is Di Stefano’s performance; he is inspired by Callas to produce his best work and is in finest voice, the only flaw being a tendency to shout his two top Cs. This incipient hardness in his tone prevents him from sounding quite as beautiful as either Björling or Pavarotti but his ardour and sincerity are great compensations; he is every inch the ardent lover, tender in the recitative and desperate in his outpourings of grief. Both he and Callas are so moving in their intimacy and restraint that they make the concluding moments of this famous tearjerker genuinely harrowing rather than histrionic or sentimental.

Callas is very successful in lightening her voice to create a vulnerable and loveable Mimì in Act I, but expanding beautifully, for example, into “Ma quando vien lo sgelo”. She exhibits all the artistic and vocal touches we expect from her: exquisite portamenti, wonderful variety of tone, verbal acuity and insight. For me, Act III, even more than the concluding Act, shows her at her best: the succession of duets culminating in the great quartet is what you should sample if you are not sure whether you want this set. Callas is inspired and, in turn, inspires her partners. The pathos of her utterance at such moments as “Buon giorno, Marcello…tutti qui sorridenti a Mimì” is quite unmatched by any other singer, however good. In a sense, singing the supposedly less demanding Mimì was for her like a holiday from killer roles like “Turandot”, but she brings all her customary dedication to her characterisation of the little seamstress.

Panerai is, as ever, in lean, incisive voice, inflecting the text sensitively and sounding very little different from his performance eighteen years later with Karajan but perhaps less inclined here to croon; the duet with Di Stefano opening Act IV works its magic triumphantly. Moffo is in her vocal and temperamental element as the “tart with a heart”, Musetta. Zaccaria is a grave and comically lugubrious Colline. The Schaunard could be better, but there are no real weaknesses in the supporting cast even if you have favourite singers in other recordings…Ever generous, Naxos provides us with a very welcome bonus in the form of duets from a recording session of 5 June in the same year as this “Bohème”, and Di Stefano is again in superb voice. His partner, Rosanna Carteri, is somewhat forgotten today, yet she was an estimable artist. She sounds very much like Mirella Freni but has an occasional, regrettable tendency to go a little flat. This is not troublesome and particularly enjoyable are the first two items: the love duet from “Otello” and an extended excerpt from Mascagni’s neglected “Iris”. Clearly, Di Stefano, ever the over-reacher, aspired to Otello, a rôle which, if undertaken, would no doubt have accelerated his already precipitate vocal decline. Here he acquits himself admirably in the more lyrical mode of “Già nella notte densa” and the passionate cantilena of the Mascagni.

There is a lot of great music on offer here at a super-bargain price…Fans of both Di Stefano and Callas will need no second invitation.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Though Maria Callas gave a touching portrait of Mimi, it was sung purely to please her record company, the role never interesting her sufficiently to perform it on the stage. To capture the mood of the young seamstress she took half the weight from her voice, only having to use it in full—where it would have been impossible to do otherwise—during the meeting with Schaunard in the third act. She never became a mawkish Mimi, the death scene mixing sadness with dignity. Maybe it is not the greatest Mimi on disc, but at times it comes close. Recorded at La Scala, Milan, in 1956, the label’s rush to place it on the market found Giuseppe Di Stefano in a hectic working period and he forced his voice into the upper register, when at a better time it would have floated there. The young Anna Moffo took Musetta, a portrayal far from the shrewish character we often hear, the famous waltz song so delicate that you cannot escape the feeling that here was the real Mimi. The remainder of the cast was a cut above the support Callas normally received in many of her recordings, the male solo quartet well balanced, though Carlo Badioli makes a tame Benoit. Antonio Votto conducts with more than sufficient pliability, though overall his tempos are quite urgent. As a filler Naxos have chosen the 1957 release of love duets with Di Stefano and Rosanna Carteri that was intended for the Italian market. Excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen and Les pecheurs de perles and Gounod’s Faust being sung in Italian translations. Carteri was a finer character actress though her intonation was at times rather vague, and she had the misfortune of coming into her prime when Tebaldi and Callas dominated the world of Italian opera sopranos. Di Stefano sounds ill at ease in Verdi’s Otello, leaving a charming excerpt from Act 2 of Mascagni’s Iris as the one track of real interest. The transfers are immaculate.

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