Great Performances at The Met: Puccini’s La Boheme, Feb. 15, 1958

Listen to the Story

Licia Albanese as Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme(Photo: The Metropolitan Opera)
Licia Albanese as Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme(Photo: The Metropolitan Opera)

Sony Classical continues to release Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts from days gone by.

These broadcast performances have been available since the early 1930s (when the Met first started broadcasting Opera over the radio) to people who collect pirated media, but Sony is cleaning them up sonically, and despite of the skimpy packaging, it is good to have these commercially available.

When the Metropolitan Opera televised Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme in 1977 my super macho roommate Rob (who I love to this day) sat and wept. Grown men and their friends become puddles when Mimi is given the muff for her cold hands, and dies. Rodolfo never sobs alone.

Many of the participants in this fifty three year old performance are alive and well.

  • Soprano Licia Albanese is  a youthful ninety-eight, busy teaching and running a foundation bearing her name.
  • Carlo Bergonzi (b. 1924) my favorite tenor, runs a successful hotel in Giuseppe Verdi’s hometown.
  • Mario Sereni and Laurel Hurley are, as far as I know, well at eighty years old.

Sadly, conductor Thomas Schippers died in 1977 at age 47. He was de facto music director at the Metropolitan Opera at the time of his death.

Schippers made his debut at age 20, and later conducted the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He’s forgotten today, but Thomas Schippers was young, handsome, and a musician admired by Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Maria Callas, Rudolf Bing, Leonard Bernstein and Eileen Farrell.

Some operas are about passion. Some are about death and violence. Some are about evil. La boheme is about love. Sex, passion and disappointments, yes, but love is the key word here. You need singers with the power to ride Giacomo Puccini’s heavy orchestra, who really believe what they are singing.

Albanese’s voice cuts through the orchestra with an acidic tinge and a flutter that bothered some. It didn’t bother Arturo Toscanini, who adored her, nor the public in New York, where she is a favorite to this day. Albanese sang all the Puccini roles and is considered the last living link to the composer himself.

I interviewed Albanese in March 2007 and loved it when she said, “Go ahead! Make a mistake! Don’t be afraid!”

[audio src="http://www.wosu.org/audio/purdypodcasts/albanese.mp3"]

She was telling us to be present and to be involved. She certainly is. At the end of the opera, she sounds like a lovely flower, fading away.

Carlo Bergonzi had, I think, a perfect legato and an ingratiating tone. Hearing him sing in his own language was one of the joys of my life. Here he is with Licia Albanese that Saturday afternoon in 1958, with a bit from the Act I finale of La boheme.

[audio src="http://wosu.org/audio/classical/2011/boheme1.mp3"]

Laurel Hurley, Mario Sereni, Ezio Flagello and Clifford Harvout are the other bohemians in the cast. All had fine careers, sometimes in leads, sometimes not.

The only drawback is that Thomas Schippers’s orchestra sometimes dwarfs the singers. Bergonzi and Albanese had long, sensational careers because they never forced their voices. If you call Mme Albanese up today and ask her to sing for you, she will and she can.

Realize as you listen to these artists in the world’s most loved opera over fifty years ago, that this performance was business as usual at the Met (as of February 25, 2011, the Met has given 1451 performances of La boheme).  Opera and radio were held to very high standards!

Thank you, Sony Classical.

Comments