In anticipation of Signum Classic’s new release of “La Bohème” I happily reminisced about Lithuanian tenor Merūnas Vitulskis’ performance of “Madama Butterfly” which I had the chance to witness at the Grand Théâtre in Luxembourg all the way back in 2015. It was an elegant voice, well placed, with a warm timbre and baritonal depth, albeit none of the customary throaty mannerisms, which charmed me into believing that here was not only an under-recorded artist but maybe the standard bearer of a whole new generation of Italian opera.
And as far as the present recording goes, my hopes were not disappointed: for after a somewhat conventional start to Rodolfo’s amour fou in the first part of Act one, Vitulskis and an excellent cast of mostly Irish singers make for one of the most memorable opera experiences on CD in recent years.
Part of what distinguishes this “Bohème” from earlier recordings is its intimate character which, in keeping with a musicological rethinking of the Puccini scores, translates into conductor Sergio Alapont’s very measured, at times held-back approach to its most sentimentally charged passages.
Under his baton the orchestra of the Irish National Opera can do without the broadband sound for which Herbert von Karajan set the standards in 1972. And quite successfully so: we are in the middle of a chamber opera when Alapont dials back on the orchestra’s doubling the emotional ecstasy of the protagonists in “O soave fanciulla.”
Similarly, when Mimi reaches the climax of her signature aria the expansiveness of the line starting on “Ma quando vien lo sgelo” remains, for want of a better word, contained so that Alapont may allow his singers to make a case for the humane side of their characters. Some might object to this slightly unusual sound – I, for my part, found it to work unexpectedly well and appreciated the many diminuendos and stylistic detail which, without the orchestral finesse and even restraint, may have gone unnoticed.
Add to this an excellent balance between the voices and the instruments with none overriding the other even in the most convoluted parts of Act two which in itself reveals minute touches from the winds seldom heard in recordings before.
Yet it goes without saying that the novelty of Alapont’s vision does not stand on its own, but is backed up by a charismatic and vocally harmonious cast which takes the subtle – and I would like to say impressionistic – cues of its conductor to a level of dramatic ingenuity which, while slowly building, reaches its peak in Act three.
Here, the quartet of Vitulskis, Byrne, Bizic, and Devin achieve a state of near-perfect syntony in which they display their respective qualities of singing actors; neither mannered nor too overtly spontaneous they navigate the emotional spectrum of jealousy, heartbreak, and amorous resignation with intoxicating ease, making their take on the scene of the “Barrière d’Enfer” stand out among a discography as rich as “La Bohème’s.”
The Marcello of David Bizic deserves a separate accolade as the Serbian baritone uses his vocal resources to draw an especially compassionate portrait of his character, including velvety depths and ringing tops when needed.
The same observations of unisonous harmony hold true for whenever the other Bohemians are involved. Ben McAteer’s Shaunard and John Molloy’s Colline blend in seamlessly with the gaiety of the scene around Marcello using the unfaithfulness of Benoit to dodge the latter’s requests for the artists to pay their rent.
On an individual level, however, one of my regrets was that Molloy did not infuse the showpiece aria of “Vecchia zimarra” with as much gravity as the context or indeed the recording tradition may call for. This includes some tonal ambiguity in the high tessitura passage of “Passar nelle tue tasche.”
As for the four protagonists, I hinted at Bizic and Vitulskis’ forceful take on their respective roles earlier in this review. Between Vitulskis’ sensitive rendition of “Che gelida manina” – from the use of the mezza voce to the expansiveness of “Talor dal mio forziere” – and his being seconded by the excellent David Bizic, both singers have ample opportunity to showcase an imposing breadth of technical as well as expressive skills.
Mimì and Musetta, from an Irish Perspective
This does not apply in equal measure to Kildare-born Celine Byrne: while her voice adapts to the Puccinian sound – and most notably, the heroine as soubrette – in admirable fashion, delivering lines of formidable idiosyncrasy, at times her volume does not seem to keep up with the orchestral thickness. I do not mean to say the voice strains, but it hits what appears to be some kind of limitation in such exposed passages as towards the end of “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” or in “Sono andati.”
From a purely vocal perspective then Byrne does not fill the role as much as similarly timberered, that is lighter sopranos from earlier incisions such as Angela Gheorghiu who, regardless of either singer’s interpretive take, manages the score’s demands more aptly than her Irish counterpart.
The cast is completed by Anna Devin who makes a sparkling appearance as Musetta not least thanks to the rich chromatics in her voice. They add, for instance, some wonderful spinto tones to her prayer in Act four while neatly contrasting with the sprezzatura of “Quando men vo” or the near-cynical pragmatism in the aside of “Or conviene liberarsi dal vecchio.” All of this goes to show the versatility of Devin’s interpretation from a mere textual perspective, not to mention her technical merits or her ability to fit into the vocal medley of the Bohemians.
As far as its history goes, the discography of “La Bohème” is all-encompassing with the first studio incision dating back to 1917. In over a century it produced gems like the 1956 recording of Thomas Beecham – with Jussi Bjorling and Victoria de los Angeles in the main roles – as well as its 1972 counterpart with Pavarotti and Mirella Freni to name but the most prominent ones.
The 21st century has had very little to add to what appears a comprehensive recording catalog and any new release deserves to be met with a healthy amount of criticism against the commercial values that so often underlie modern studio productions. Not so in the case of Signum Classics – the British label offers a fresh and innovative view on an all-time favorite that has no obvious flaws but an infinite amount of orchestral detail, vocal sprezzatura, and joie de vivre which all contribute in making “La Bohème” one of the best opera recordings of the past decade.