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.
Puccini: La Bohème Review
by Stephen Eddins