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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Bernstein Legacy: Some Americans in Paris

Looking back at a flawed but interesting 1988 La bohème.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The catalogue of any large record company is filled with interesting failures: pricey boxed sets that get re-issued at a bargain price or in some cases quietly and suddenly dropped from the catalog, only to reappear in complete compilations of a composers or conductors works. One of those rarities is the 1988 Deutsche Grammophon recording of La bohème, made in Rome with the Orchestra of the National Academy of St. Cecilia under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

Aside from those of his own stage works, there aren't that many Bernstein opera recordings. The conductor laid down Falstaff, Tristan und Isolde, Der Rosenkavalier and Carmen, putting his own unique spin on each. This Bohème was his last such work, and finds him gleefully diving into this inspiring score and dusting off shining moments that are fuzzy in other hands.

Bohème is arguably the most popular opera of the 20th century heard around the world and known to most aficionados from their first exposure to opera. Its best representations in the classical catalog are from the 1950s and 1960s: recordings made by legendary artists in a so-called golden age of singing. Those are the first choices for this particular opera: the Tebaldi/Bergonzi recording, the De Los Angeles/Björling, even the Freni/Pavarotti. That's not the point of this article.

As a whole, this recording (using an ensemble founded to promote the idea of Italian orchestral music) does not match up well with these classics. One hears the conductor's maverick spirit from the very first bars, stretching and compressing passages but also bringing out exquisite detail and ornamentation. Much as with Giuseppe Sinopoli's Puccini recordings (made around the same time period) this allows one to hear the music with fresh "ears," highlighting elements that other conductors may skate over.

With the selection of his all-American cast, Maestro Bernstein was less successful. This is Angela Réaux's only major opera recording. The Houston-based soprano has a believable manner but she turns thin and watery at the top of her range, and has trouble negotiating the conductor's wayward tempo choices in the big Act I duet. Ideally, Mimi's head voice moments should be supported by a firmer column of sound so the big dramatic moments become convincing. Barbara Daniels (who dabbled at times in some of the heaviest Puccini repertory) is a high-flying Musetta. It's not her singing but her shrill and gaudy screams in Act II that break the mood of her Waltz. Oy.

The men are better. This was a discovery moment for the late Jerry Hadley, his handsome, characterful voice slipping into Rodolfo like the pages of a play into a licking fire. It also marked a turning point for Thomas Hampson: now a ubiquitous presence, the young baritone was not a household name when he recorded Marcello. Of the four leads, he delivers the best performance, anchoring and carrying the third act in his confrontations with Musetta.

Actually the best performance on this recording comes from Paul Plishka as Colline. Mr Plishka, a bass who has logged over 1,600 performances at the Metropolitan Opera since his 1967 debut, sings the role of the dour philosopher with wisdom and wit. His "Coat song" in the fourth act is a welcome respite from the grim events transpiring in the opera, and is subtly conducted and accompanied. It is the finest moment in the set.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats