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Puccini: La Boheme / Nagano, Te Kanawa, Leech, London Symphony

Release Date: 10/03/1995 
Label:  Erato   Catalog #: 10699   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Giacomo Puccini
Performer:  Vernon MidgleyNancy GustafsonBarry BanksAlan Titus,   ... 
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony OrchestraAmbrosian SingersSt. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys Choir
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 46 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PUCCINI La Bohème Kent Nagano, cond; Kiri te Kanawa ( Mimi ); Richard Leech ( Rodolfo ); Nancy Gustafson ( Musetta ); Alan Titus ( Marcello ); Gino Quilico ( Schaunard ); Roberto Scandiuzzi ( Colline ); Carlos Chausson ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Benoit ); Alan Ewing ( Alcindoro ); Barry Banks ( Parpignol ); London SO; Ambrosian Singers; St. Clement Danes School Ch ERATO 68017 (2 CDs: 105:59) 81079

I requested this set for review not because I’d heard it when it first came out in 1995, but simply because it was another in a list of reissues featuring Kiri te Kanawa, who I happen to like. Imagine my surprise, then, upon putting it on, to discover the best stereo Bohème ever recorded.

There are so many factors that make this Bohème the finest that I scarcely know where to begin, but in my perception the driving force behind most of its excellence is conductor Kent Nagano. Often a perfunctory opera conductor (hear his Erato recording of Les Contes d’Hoffmann ), Nagano here draws a performance of considerable energy, grace, detail, and integration of all his forces. In his tempos he walks a line between the high energy of Toscanini and Chailly on the one hand and the languorous pace of Beecham, Serafin, and Karajan on the other, but in the end the tempos themselves do not tell the whole story, for Nagano manages to craft an integrated whole in which the opera proceeds at a pace that seems conversationally driven and organically right. In this respect, his style here is very close to that of Ernest Ansermet, who was famed for creating organic wholes out of works with fluctuating tempos. That Nagano is able to do this in a studio environment, where the taping of sections is usually out of sequence and spread over several weeks or a month, is all the more remarkable.

I also credit Nagano for drawing highly detailed and dramatically cogent performances out of te Kanawa and Richard Leech. The former almost always needed a great conductor to draw out her best, and the latter almost never gave detailed or dramatically vibrant performances onstage or off. I saw him in his early years (1989) as Hoffmann and was immediately impressed with the golden sheen of his voice and its easy production, but as early as 1992 I began hearing him, on records, pushing the voice very hard yet not getting into the character, which is almost always a recipe for disaster. Here, however, te Kanawa’s Mimi rivals that of Freni for imagination and sensitivity, while Leech’s Rodolfo comes somewhere between the exalted ranks of Gigli (for voice production and personality, not musicality) and Pavarotti, leaving such competitors as Björling, Bergonzi, Gedda, Domingo, and Alagna in the shade.

Certain critics came down hard on Nancy Gustafson for unsteadiness in her high range and Alan Titus for sounding too “mature” for Marcello, but I don’t hear it that way. What I hear is that Gustafson has one of those diffuse voices that are devilishly difficult to record properly (ref: Cristina Deutekom, Karita Mattila, Johann Botha); if you listen to her offstage, distantly recorded reprise of “Quando me n’vo” near the beginning of act III, you will hear no unsteadiness at all, which immediately tells you that the fault is not hers but the microphone placement. Her Musetta is not as lively as that of Tatiana Menotti (with Albanese and Gigli, the finest of all Musettas), but she is livelier than Gianna d’Angelo (Serafin), Elizabeth Harwood (Karajan), or Elizabeth Scano (Chailly), none of whom are particularly memorable. Titus sounds no more “mature” to me than Panerai in the Karajan recording. I’m not sure why Erato split the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro between two singers, particularly since either one chosen here could have done both roles splendidly, but Carlos Chausson is a very funny Benoit and Alan Ewing almost equally comical as Alcindoro. Roberto Scandiuzzi has a leaner, brighter bass voice than we are used to hearing as Colline, but he’s really excellent, and it’s a piece of luxury casting to get Gino Quilico as Schaunard.

The thread of musical and dramatic progression is unbroken within each act, with the result that this Bohème sounds far less episodic than many others. Even the chorus sounds involved, particularly at the beginnings of acts II and III. Nagano also brings out numerous little orchestral details not normally heard, such as the stinging muted trumpet in the background of act I. Nothing in this performance is left to chance or sloughed over in an attempt to “get it over with.” It has the sound and feel of a live stage performance that just keeps getting better and better as it progresses. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

My only complaint is that the reissued version is sans libretto, which you can access online at opera-guide.ch/opern_komponisten.php. What you’re supposed to do with the libretto once you access it is unclear. It’s too cumbersome to read onscreen while listening to the recording (and whoever looks constantly at a computer screen while listening to a CD needs some serious psychiatric help), and downloading and printing it out is both time-consuming and cumbersome. But this is the wave of the present and future, so there you are.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Performer:  Vernon Midgley (Tenor), Nancy Gustafson (Soprano), Barry Banks (Tenor),
Alan Titus (Baritone), Gino Quilico (Baritone), Carlos Chausson (Bass),
Roberto Scandiuzzi (Bass), Alan Ewing (Bass), Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (Soprano),
Oliver Broome (Bass), Leslie Fyson (Bass), Richard Leech (Tenor)
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Symphony Orchestra,  Ambrosian Singers,  St. Clement Danes Grammar School Boys Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1896; Italy 
Length: 106 Minutes 0 Secs. 
Language: Italian 

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