The opening of this filmed La
Bohème prompts the question. First we see the facade of La Scala, from whence this staging —
before being adapted to the soundstage of some film studio — originated, in 1965. And then we
see the stern, handsome conductor, ostentatiously raising both his arms high to bring that baton
down, the red of the house behind him contrasting with the glorious silver of his hair and the
black of his tux.
What an ego, to appear before the film audience as if he were about to lead a live staging. As
soon as the orchestra rips into the famous opening notes of Puccini’s score, and we are in the
three walls of an old-fashioned movie studio “garret,” his image disappears, but his presence
remains, not relinquishing any more of the spotlight to his singers and director/designer, Franco
Zeffirelli, than necessary. No one could get away with this kind of thing today — but isn’t that at
least partly because, few if any have the credentials and impact Karajan could boast of?
At any rate, this La Bohème DVD has treasurable qualities, with one big caveat. The singers
mime to their recorded performances. As is often the case, the lip-syncing is erratic at best. More
worryingly, there is a disconnect between the naturalism of film and a soundtrack that has no
sense of immediacy, of place. Your reviewer found it hard to get involved through the first two
acts, but finally succumbed to the eerie beauty of the act three set.
Among an excellent cast, Mirella Freni’s Mimi stands out as a classic portrayal. Looking both
appropriately fragile and heart-meltingly lovely, she brings the very great added bonus of singing
like an angel. If only she were not costumed in act four in a lovely, perfectly clean and
well-pressed dress of baby-blue, with bonnet. She doesn’t look ill for a moment.
Gianni Raimondi’s passionate Rodolfo and Rolando Panerai’s energetic Marcello play off each
other well. Adriana Martino manages to capture Musetta’s capricious nature without pushing into
obnoxiousness, as some have done. Gianni Maffeo (Schaunard) and Ivo Vinco (Colline) fill out
the cast ably.
The washed-out color reminds one of ‘60s TV shows. Yes, this is a dated production, but to
some extent that just adds to its charm.
If the above-described demerits sound like dire warnings, stay away. Otherwise, this beloved
opera has here an affectionate, rich rendering, thanks to Zefferelli, Freni and her co-stars, and
also that faded figure from the long lost days when classical music mattered, Herbert von
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
product_by=Mirella Freni. Adriane Martino, Gianni Raimondi, Rolando Panerai, Gianni Maffeo, Ivo Vinco, Carlo Badioli, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Herbert von Karajan (cond.). Stage Production and Set Design: Franco Zeffirelli
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 073 407-1 [DVD]