The reports of this new recording of Puccini's perennial favourite, La bohème, have been so decidedly mixed, that I was almost surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
It's true that the opera is so well represented in the catalogue that there isn't a particular need for a recording of the work per se; nor does this new rendition make me want to consign the Pavarotti-Freni recording to the scrapheap.
Yet Deutsche Grammophon's new set really does have a lot going for it. For one thing, the recording itself has the atmosphere of a live performance – it was recorded in concert rather than in the studio – yet the clarity of sound is admirable. One reviewer has complained about the 'spotlighting' of the main soloists, but for me this is an attractive rather than negative aspect: I like to be able to hear them clearly. DG's engineers have worked wonders on the sound quality, which is pretty much that of a studio recording. Bertrand De Billy's conducting of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks is wonderfully lively, and again the recording acoustic allows one to hear all the details of Puccini's magnificent orchestration without any difficulty. At the beginning of Act III, for instance, the woodwind, brass and percussion lines are chillingly present rather than studio-bound, and De Billy's admirable flexibility of tempo comes into its own in this act, too.
Anna Netrebko's voice always carries a distinctive Russian edge, which prevents the purity of tone that some interpreters of the role of Mimi can produce. Yet I find the amount of detail she brings to the vocal line deeply appealing. She may not break the heart as some singers can, but she liberates Mimi from her potential status as a simpleton and injects her with a fieriness of spirit. The duet with Marcello, 'Speravo di trovari qui', for instance, is arresting in its depiction of Mimi's torn inclinations, and Netrebko's way even with 'Mi chiamano Mimi' is highly individual.
Yet there's no doubt that Rolando Villazón's impassioned Rodolfo is the prime reason for buying the set. The part lies well for him, and, perhaps more than the other singers, he performs the work as if it's an opera in the theatre. The journey from playful young poet in the opening scene (which he easily dominates) to heartbroken lover in the mournful closing moments of Act IV has surely never been more vividly depicted, and there is absolutely no egomaniacal posturing during the more famous numbers. Villazón uses every colour available in his voice as a channel for his emotional commitment, which is never in question.
I rather like the glamour of Nicole Cabell's Musetta: sometimes the character can be two-dimensional, but Cabell's treatment of the text and beauty of tone ensure that she doesn't get painted too broadly here. 'Quando men vo' is an excellent vehicle for her talents and she is by no means fazed by singing alongside her well-known colleagues. Boaz Daniel is perhaps less imaginative as Marcello, especially when heard alongside Villazón in the Act IV duet, but Stephane Degout's Schaunard, VitalijKowaljow's Colline and Tiziano Bracci in the multiple roles of Benoit, Alcindoro and Un doganiere, make a more than acceptable supporting cast. Praise is due to the rousing singing of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks during the second act, which is a highlight (though occasionally some of the soloists' lines are lost on the recording). De Billy's conducting really does the score service, lingering only when the lyricism of the moment absolutely demands it and otherwise connecting instinctively with the quicksilver temperament of this most compact of operas.
The recording is very smartly packaged, with shots from the new film of the opera that Villazón and Netrebko have made, of which this will become the soundtrack. Currently available at mid-price, this new account of the score is well worth exploring.
See also Rolando Villazon's new CD on Deutsche Grammphon, Cielo e mar, here.