La Boheme  (von  Karajan;  Mirella Freni, Pavarotti, Harwood, Panerai, Ghiaurov)  (2-London 205615)
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La Boheme  (von  Karajan;  Mirella Freni, Pavarotti, Harwood, Panerai, Ghiaurov)  (2-London 205615)
OP0060. LA BOHEME, recorded 1972, w.von Karajan Cond. Berlin Phil.; Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Elizabeth Harwood, Rolando Panerai, Nicolai Ghiaurov, etc. 2-London 205615, Slipcase Edition, w.Elaborate 153pp. Libretto-brochure. Final Copy. - 028942104921


“There is no lack of stellar, gripping versions of LA BOHÈME on disc, and by most reckonings, this one stands toward the front of the pack. Having a cast of superstars is no guarantee that an opera recording is going to have the chemistry to knock you off your feet, but the performers here live up to the expectations that their fame raises. Luciano Pavarotti is an ardent Rodolfo; his youthful impetuosity is completely convincing, and he sings with the passionate but unforced creaminess that characterized his performances at the height of his career. Mirella Freni is also vocally in top form. Her Mimi is deeply felt and her voice is sweet, pure, and soaringly lyrical. Rolando Panerai was into middle age when he made this recording, but he is persuasively youthful and he sings with warmth and vigor as Marcello. Elizabeth Harwood is more effective in Musetta's serious moments than in her fiery ones, but she has a very lovely floating top. The smaller roles are exceptionally well taken; it's real luxury casting to have an artist of Nicolai Ghiaurov's caliber as Colline, and Michel Sénéchal is marvelously funny as Benoit and Alcindoro. The Chorus of the Deutschen Oper, Berlin, sings with a great sense of character, and the Berlin Philharmonic plays as if this quintessentially Italianate music was in its blood. Herbert von Karajan leads an extraordinarily nuanced and expressive reading of the score. Felicitous details of orchestration that are frequently lost are clearly audible here, often to revelatory effect. Decca's sound is exemplary in its clarity and depth. Its engineers are scrupulous in their stereo separation; the stage movement is so precisely calibrated that it's easy to tell the spatial relationship between characters. This altogether exceptional version has much to recommend it to fans of the opera, and listeners coming to it for the first time could hardly find a more compelling introduction.”

- Stephen Eddins,

“This is the most sumptuous of all recorded BOHÈMEs, with conductor Herbert von Karajan coaxing ravishing playing and singing from the Berlin Philharmonic and his thoroughly-in-their-prime cast. He indulges in tempos that seem oddly slow at first but that soon add to the drama and make us hear Puccini’s orchestration—and drama—more clearly than ever; moreover, his cast can sing the composer’s lyric lines in long, sustained, legato breaths with ease and beauty. He doesn’t stint on the fun of the first and last acts either, with singers and players percolating with excitement. You can practically envision lavish sets. Pavarotti is in full bloom, with golden sound pouring forth and impeccable diction; vocally this Rodolfo hasn’t a worry in the world, and Pavarotti has ardor and feelings to spare. Freni is, if not the best, then surely one of the best Mimis of the last half-century; she is infinitely believable. The others are just as involved and sound just as good. This recording is a warm, loving experience.”

- Robert Levine,

“Mirella Freni, an exemplary Italian prima donna for nearly 50 years, whose voice was ideally suited to lighter lyric roles but maintained its bloom even as she took on weightier, more dramatic repertory in midcareer, was hailed as a last exponent of the great Italian operatic heritage. ‘That tradition is ending’, Plácido Domingo was quoted as saying in a 1997 NEW YORK TIMES article about Ms. Freni. ‘Mirella is the end of a chain. After that you cannot see who really follows her’. Many opera lovers acknowledged Ms. Freni’s special claim on this tradition, which valued bel canto principles of producing rich, unforced sound; of shaping even, lyrical lines across the range of a voice; and of sensitively matching sound to words.

With her beguiling stage presence, quiet charisma and the affecting vulnerability she could summon in her singing, Ms. Freni made Mimì in Puccini’s LA BOHÈME a signature part. She won international acclaim in the role in a landmark 1963 production at La Scala in Milan, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who became one of her major champions. Though vocal beauty and proper technique were central to the Italian tradition, Ms. Freni placed a premium on expressivity and feeling. Commenting on the state of opera in a 1997 interview with The Times, she said there were many young artists who sing well and move well. ‘But that is all’, she added. ‘Finito! I want something deeper. It is important to have emotion, to live through the music onstage’, she continued. ‘Also, the Italian singers have a special feeling for the language. Even when we speak it is musical’. Yet she steadily expanded her repertory and, as the colorings of her voice grew darker with maturity, sang more dramatically intense and vocally heavy roles, like Desdemona in Verdi’s OTELLO, Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. She was particularly urged on this course by Karajan, who brought her to the Salzburg Festival to sing Desdemona and the demanding role of Elisabetta in Verdi’s DON CARLO.

With the support of her second husband, the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, she ventured into Russian repertory, singing Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s EUGENE ONEGIN and Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s PIQUE DAME. Yet Ms. Freni never lost the warmth and richness of her lyric soprano origins. Reviewing her performance in MANON LESCAUT at the Met in 1990, THE TIMES’ Donal Henahan marveled at her longevity and excellence. ‘The wonder of Mirella Freni at this stage of her career’, he wrote, ‘is that she continues to sing Puccini with seemingly reckless ardor while preserving a surprisingly fresh and beautiful sound’. Still, Ms. Freni considered herself a judicious soprano. She could say no, even to the imposing Karajan, if she though a particular role was not right for her. She recorded Puccini’s Madama Butterfly twice, including a film version conducted by Karajan, but never performed the role complete in a staged production in an opera house.

‘I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice’, she said in a 2013 OPERA NEWS interview. ‘Some singers think they are gods who can do everything’, she added. ‘But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities’.

She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965 as Mimì and returned regularly to sing, among various roles, Adina in Donizetti’s L’ELISIR D’AMORE, Liù in Puccini’s TURANDOT and a new 1967 production of Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE opposite the star tenor Franco Corelli (with whom she recorded the opera splendidly the next year). But she had been absent from the Met for more than 14 years when she returned in 1983 as Elisabetta in DON CARLO, with James Levine conducting and Mr. Ghiaurov as Philip II. In 1996 the Met mounted a production of a rarity, Giordano’s FEDORA, for Ms. Freni and Mr. Domingo, garnering rave reviews for both. She sang more than 140 performances with the company in all.

Asked whether she thought of herself as the ‘last prima donna’, as she was sometimes called, Ms. Freni demurred. ‘You tell me why I am the last of a tradition’, she said. ‘I have done my job honestly. I have worked hard and with joy’.”

- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 9 Feb., 2020