Giacomo Puccini: La Boh╦me
Barbara Frittoli, soprano, (Mimì), Andrea Bocelli, tenor, (Rodolfo), Eva Mei, soprano, (Musetta), Paolo Gavanelli, baritone, (Marcello), Natale de Carolis, baritone, (Schaunard), Mario Luperi, bass (Colline), Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/ Coro di voci bianche della Scuola di Musica di Fiesole/ Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/ Zubin Mehta, cond.

London 464 060 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 1:53:18

The essay accompanying the promotional copy of this new release bears the title:"Andrea Bocelli's La Boh╦me."  Some might be tempted to point out that it was Giacomo Puccininot Andrea Bocelli—who composed the opera. But there is no question that the presence of the extraordinarily popular Italian singer is the raison-d' ═tre for yet another recording of a work that has fared exceedingly well on disc.

I found Andrea Bocelli's recent disc of Verdi arias (Philips  464 600) to be a less than stellar effort. Bocelli's small-scaled tenor lacks the kind of ring and heft required by Verdi's demanding vocal writing. Further, Bocelli's interpretations offered little in the way of dramatic fire or insight.  In the promotional booklet for this La Boh╦me,  Bocelli comments: "I think that it's very important to perform an opera live on stage before recording it." Few would disagree with that statement. And yet, as far as I can tell, Andrea Bocelli had not performed any of the operas included on the Verdi disc prior to making his aria recording.

Such is not the case with La Boh╦me. In February 1998, Andrea Bocelli participated in a staging of Puccini's opera in Sardinia. That experience seems to have helped.  Bocelli is certainly a more involved singer as Puccini's Rodolfo than he was on the Verdi disc. However, much of the involvement is limited to small explosions of sound that pass for dramatic emphases. In terms of offering any kind of special insight,  Bocelli does not begin to approach such memorable recorded portrayals as those of Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, or Carlo Bergonzi.

Bocelli likewise falls short in terms of offering the kind of full-bodied lyric or lirico-spinto voice needed to do full justice to this passionate role. All one need do is listen to the Rodolfos I've already mentioned, as well as those of Jussi Bjoerling, Richard Tucker, Luciano Pavarotti (or, to be honest, just about anyone else who has recorded this role). It then becomes abundantly clear that while Bocelli possesses a voice with a pleasing quality and a relatively free, secure upper register, it is several sizes short of being truly "operatic"

The Mimì is Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli. The voice is attractive, although its rather slow vibrato occasionally threatens to spread into a beat or wobble.  Ms. Frittoli is quoted as saying: "I don't particularly like Mimì as a character. Mimì has a weak personality." For that reason, Ms. Frittoli no longer performs the role on stage. Nevertheless, she "decided to do this CD recording, because for a recording you can focus on the text and the music."  That may be so. But recordings, lacking the visual element of a stage performance, require an even greater attention to dramatic detail. Such attention is not to be found here. Ms. Frittoli's lack of identification with Mimì betrays itself in a performance of extreme detachment. In the first two acts, one gains almost no sense of the sweetness and sensuality that attract Rodolfo to this young woman. Nor does Ms. Frittoli convey the desperation of Mimì's plight in the opera's closing acts. Mimi's death scene, one of the classic tear-jerkers in the operatic repertoire, comes and goes to little effect.

The remaining principals are competent, if not outstanding. None of the vocalists, it seems to me, is aided by the extraordinarily broad tempos adopted by Zubin Mehta. By way of comparison, the RCA recording led by Arturo Toscanini (who conducted the opera's world premiere in 1896) is eighteen minutes faster than Mehta's!  Even Sir Thomas Beecham's classic 1956 EMI recording, often cited for its leisurely approach, arrives at the finish line five minutes earlier. And there is little in the way of drive or momentum in this new recording to compensate for tempos that might be more appropriate for Parsifal than La Boh╦me.

The recorded sound is quite fine. I have no doubt that this venture will be a tremendous commercial success. Still, I would urge you (if you haven't already) to sample some versions of La Boh╦me that really do justice to this captivating work. These would include the 1938 EMI (Albanese, Gigli), the 1946 RCA under Toscanini (Albanese, Peerce), two 1956 EMI recordings (Callas, di Stefano, Serafin conducting), (de los Angeles, Bjoerling, Beecham, conducting), and the 1959 London (Tebaldi, Bergonzi, again with Serafin). If you desire a modern recording, the recent London set led by Riccardo Chailly with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna is far preferable as well.

K.M. (Oct. 2000)