Callas in La Boheme

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Recorded 20-25 August, 3-4 September 1956, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producers: Walter Legge & Walter Jellinek: Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Mimi is a role one would not associate with Callas, and indeed it is one of four roles she learned for the gramophone but never sang on stage. The opera itself makes its effect easily and can withstand even a mediocre performance, the role of Mimi being probably one of the least demanding in the soprano repertoire. Great Normas may always have been thin on the ground; effective Mimis have been, and still are, plentiful. The role’s requirements are slight; sweetness, charm, and a capacity for what the Italians call morbidezza; qualities that come naturally to a De Los Angeles or a Freni, less so, one would have thought, to a Callas.

But of course the miracle of Callas is that she not only scales down her voice and personality to suit the demands of the role, but also finds within it a deeper vein of tragedy one hardly suspected was there, her singing full of little incidental details often overlooked by others. Her first utterances have a weariness that presages her illness, and she fades the voice away most effectively as she faints. The duet with Rodolfo is light and charming, but more of this Mimi’s capacity for love emerges in her aria. Starting shyly, she gradually suffuses her tone with warmth at the section beginning Ma quando vien lo sgelo, not lingering too long on the top As and thereby ruining the shape of the aria, as so many do, and I love the way the last section, from altro di me non saprei narare, is delivered with a slight touch of embarrassment as if Mimi suddenly realises she has revealed too much too soon.

It is in the last two acts, though, that Callas’s Mimi is at its most moving. Never before has Mimi’s despair been so heart-rendingly expressed, but also note how, with a single word (dorme? ) in the duet with Marcello, she conjures up all Mimi’s warmth and tender love for Rodolfo, with the gentlest of upward portamenti. Act IV is almost fail safe, but here too she is wonderfully effective, finding the palest of colours as the pallor of death takes over.

She has a good cast around her; Di Stefano in one of his best roles, Panerai a splendid Marcello, Moffo a sympathetic Musetta, and something of a relief from the sparky soubrettes we so often end up with. Zaccaria and Spatafora are an excellent pair of Bohemians.

Votto doesn’t do anything wrong, but such a cast would have benefited from a stronger hand at the helm. He accompanies well, but it’s a shame, given that Serafin was not an option at the time, Legge couldn’t have persuaded Karajan to stick around after recording Il Trovatore with her.

The sound of this La Boheme has always been good for its period. I owned the original Columbia LPs, which I played to death. These Warner CDs also sound pretty good to me.

There are so many good recordings of La Boheme in the catalogue, that choosing the best one is well-nigh impossible, and choice will no doubt come down to preference for certain singers. However this recording, made 60 years ago now, still holds its place amongst the top recommendations.