Puccini: La Boheme (CD review)

Andrea Bocelli, Barbara Frittoli; Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Decca 269 464 060-2 (2-disc set).

Passion. It's what I think of first when I think of Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme. Without passion, the opera is just beautiful music. Not that there's anything wrong with beautiful music, mind you, and with this set you'll get that aplenty. But something magical happens when the performers invest the music with an ardent Italianate fervor. This is evident in the great La Boheme recordings of the past like those from De los Angeles, Bjorling, and Beecham (EMI); Freni, Pavarotti, and Karajan (Decca); or Tebaldi, Bergonzi, and Serafin (Decca). By contrast, especially to the first two, which I had on hand for comparison, the team of Barbara Frittoli, Andrea Bocelli, and Zubin Mehta in the 2000 Decca set under review doesn't quite scale the same heights of excitement.

Where the older stars were sweet and lyrical where needed and expressive and thrilling likewise, the newcomers seem more interested merely in reproducing lovely tunes. In the big numbers like "Che gelida manina" and "Si, Mi chiamano Mimi" and "O soave fanciulla," Frittoli and Bocelli fail to set the soul on fire or to make the hair on the back of the neck stand up the way the others do. Frittoli and Bocelli failed to convince me of their love, their ardor--in essence, their passion. Nor do they evoke the kind of sympathy they should for Mimi and Rodolfo in the final death scene, in "Oh Dio! Mimi!" and "Che ha detto il medico?"

Andrea Bocelli
The singers' voices are pure, their enunciation is letter perfect, and undoubtedly their hearts are in the right place. They sing as sweetly as one could hope for and make this La Boheme a warm event; nothing can diminish Puccini's capacity for refined sentimentality and beauty of tone. Nevertheless, do they have that extra dimension that sets them apart and makes us want to weep along with them? Not really, except, I suppose, to Bocelli fans who love everything the man sings, no matter what.

Where the new Decca recording does shine, however, is in its aural clarity. It is in most ways the best recorded of the ones I've mentioned, and it sounds decidedly better than the Tebaldi-Bergonzi set, which is much older than any of them. The newer Decca displays voices that sound practically in the room with the listener. Still, the older Freni-Pavarotti Decca has a sonic quality all its own that's hard to beat, too; namely, the reverberant ambiance of a live performance that may bring the listener closer to the actual event.

It's hard to say just who the audience might be for any Puccini recording. Certainly, opera collectors and Puccini fans will want everything that comes along. Andrea Bocelli is a hot star at any time, and many of his fans will want to hear him singing anything. Those listeners interested primarily in sonic value will no doubt find the Bocelli venture to their liking (although, to be honest, it sounded a little lacking in stage depth to me). For first-time buyers I'd still recommend Freni-Pavarotti as the best all-around bet, grand opera at its most sweeping, feverish best. Moreover, if you haven't heard the sets from Vaduva, Alagna, and Pappano (EMI) or Gheorghiu, Alagna, and Chailly (Decca) or Moffo, Tucker, and Leinsdorf (RCA), you might like them, as well.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa