Puccini’s La Boheme is popular beyond comment. It has been performed 1295 times by the Met since the company’s first performance of the opera on tour in Los Angeles in 1900. Incidentally, Los Angeles was also the site of the work’s American premiere three years earlier. Aida is far behind in the Met’s second spot.
There’s not a weak note in Puccini’s masterful score. One highlight follows another. One of the opera’s great moments occurs at the end of Act 1. Rodolfo and Mimi have rapidly fallen in love. Each sings a biographical aria after which they declare their newfound love in a rapturous duet. This duet requires delicacy and restraint, especially from the tenor. The duet ends on the word ‘amor’ sung by both tenor and soprano after they have left the stage to join the other Bohemians in an outdoor supper on Christmas Eve – in Paris after sunset! Okay, it’s opera. But remember that the opera starts with Rodolfo and Marcello kvetching about the cold in their garret. So going to an outdoor dinner doesn’t seem like a good idea even by the standards of opera.
The soprano’s climactic note in this duet is a high C marked pp and perdendosi (dying away). This soft singing is hard, but there are always sopranos who can do it. The tenor’s note has the same markings, but is a middle C. There are almost no tenors who can sing a high C with the directions provided by the composer, which obviously is why he wrote the note the way he did. Tenors being what they are often elect to take the high C with the soprano. This irresistible urge commonly results in a screaming match between the two.
The Italian words are below followed by an English translation.
I’ll start with Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba. The latter was the Mets first Mimi. The opera was still new when this recording was made in 1907. Caruso sings the music the way it was written, not that he wouldn’t change a score to suit his purpose. He initiated the practice of the tenor appropriating the last line of Pagliacci written for the baritone. Considering the time/technology gulf that separates us from the making of this recording, the two superstars acquit themselves very well. O soave fanciulla Caruso Melba
Rodolfo was a staple of Beniamino Gigli’s repertoire. He made this recording in 1937 with the spinto soprano Maria Caniglia who had a voice more suited to Turandot than Mimi. In fact she appeared in that role in the first complete recording made of Puccini’s final opera. Gigli takes the final note up with a not very pleasant result. Though he was only 47 at the time of this recording his high C is pushed and forced. O soave fanciulla Gigli Caniglia
If a tenor is going to ignore Puccini’s instructions and take the high C, he should have one like Giuseppe Di Stefano had in 1951. This duet (O soave fanciulla Di Stefano Albanese) is taken from a single LP disc of 8 highlights from the opera. The other singers on this now very hard to find recording were Licia Albanese, Patrice Munsel, and Leonard Warren. Warren never sang Marcello in Boheme onstage. It was too small a role for his great voice and equally grand ego. Since this disc is virtually impossible to find the following link will allow you to download the entire recording. La Boheme Albanese Munsel Di Stefano Warren The tenor-baritone duet (the only one Puccini ever wrote) is terrific and alone make the recording worth having.
Di Stefano also recorded a complete La Boheme with Maria Callas. By the time this performance was taped, his voice was not quite as fresh as it had been, but was still very good. Callas was in fine shape. Di Stefano reduces the volume of the high C which is effective, but he should have sung the note as written. O soave fanciulla Di Stefano Callas
The duet sounds great even when sung in German as it is on this recording by Fritz Wunderlich and Anneliese Rothenberger. The great German tenor died tragically young from a fall that happened just weeks before he was to make his Met debut. Rotenberger made her Met debut in 1965, the year before Wunderlich’s death. She lived to be almost 86. Wunderlich’s singing is miraculous. O soave fanciulla Wunderlich Rothenberger
Richard Tucker and Anna Moffo sang the duet on a TV show. Tucker sang Rodolfo 53 times at the Met. Tucker was often criticized for lack of restraint with this role. He is very forward in this recording and the high note at the end is a B not a C. O soave fanciulla Tucker Moffo
Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles recorded the complete opera under the direction of Sir Thomas Beecham. Robert Merrill, Lucine Amara, and Giorgio Tozzi were also in the cast. This recording is at or near the top of everybody’s list of the best recording of the opera ever made. Björling and del los Angeles are in glorious voice here and throughout the opera. O soave fanciulla Björling de los Angeles
Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi recorded the opera around the same time as the Beecham set. Tullio Serafin conducted. Bergonzi opts for the high ending. O soave fanciulla Bergonzi Tebaldi
Franco Corelli sang his first Rodolfo anywhere at the Met in 1964. It was also the role that concluded his tenure with the company in 1975. It was the 34th time he’d been in La Boheme with the Met. I listened to a number of his recordings of the duet. The one I liked the best was from a TV program aired about the time he first sang Boheme. The American soprano Dorothy Kirsten was his partner. Of course, he takes the high note at the end, but manages to keep the volume under control. O soave fanciulla Corelli Kirsten
I don’t believe that Alfredo Kraus ever sang Rodolfo onstage, but he did record the opera opposite Renata Scotto under the direction of James Levine. Puccini was not within Kraus’s comfort zone; a space he never left which likely accounts for his vocal longevity. Scotto was noted for her Puccini heroines. She sang Mimi 27 times at the Met. The first ‘Live From the Met” TV series (1977) featured her in this role. O soave fanciulla Kraus Scotto
Jose Carreras recorded La Boheme with Katia Ricciarelli in 1987 shortly before he contracted leukemia. Colin Davis was the conductor. This recording shows how lovely his voice was before illness and overuse dimmed its brilliance. Ricciarelli born in 1946, the same year as Carreras, had a voluptuous voice when in her prime. She takes the high note exactly as marked by Puccini. O soave fanciulla Carreras Ricciarelli
Rolando Villazon was on his way to being the next great tenor when his voice abruptly went AWOL in 2007. Anna Netrebko was a great diva then as she is now. O soave fanciulla Villazon Netrebko
The penultimate version of this duet is the most recent. It features Jonas Kaufmann and Kristīne Opolais. It’s from a recital conducted by Opolais’s husband and fellow Latvian Andris Nelsons. Perhaps this relationship explains the indulgent slowness which characterizes this performance. Nevertheless, it’s still very good with excellent use of filatura from both singers. O soave fanciulla Kaufmann Opolais
No compilation of this duet is complete without the recording of it made by Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni under Herbert von Karajan’s baton. Pavarotti always sang Rodolfo when he made his first appearance an opera house. It was his Met debut role in 1968. Mirella Freni was his Mimi. He sang the part 34 times with the company. O soave fanciulla Pavarotti Freni
O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso
Di mite circonfuso alba lunar
In te ravviso il sogno
Ch’io vorrei sempre sognar!
(Ah, tu sol comandi, amor!)
Fremon nell’anima dolcezze estreme
Ecc Nel baccio freme amor!
(oh come dolci scendono le sue
Lusinghe al cor…Tu sol comandi, amor!)
No, per pieta! Sei mia! V’aspettan gli amici…
Gia mi mandi via? Vorrei dir…ma non osso
Di. Se venissi con voi? Che? Mimi!
Sarebbe cosi dolce restar qui. C’e freddo fuori.v
Vi staro vicina! E al ritorno? Curioso!
Dammi il braccio, o mia piccina…
Obbedisco, signor! Che m’ami…di’…lo t’amo
RODOLFO e MIMI
Amor! Amor! Amor!
Oh! sweet little lady! Oh, sweetest vision
With moonlight bathing your pretty face!
The dream that I see in you is the dream I’ll always dream!
(Oh, you rule alone, Love!)
Deep in my soul trembles the deepest of passions, etc
Our kisses shudder with love!
(How gently now his words of praise make their way
Into my heart…You rule alone, oh love!)
No, I beg you! You’re mine now! Your friends are still waiting
So soon must I leave you? I would like…I can’t say it…
Speak! What if I went along? What? Mimi!
How sweet instead to stay behind here. It’s freezing outside
I’d be right beside you! What about later? Who knows, sir?
Take my arm, my dear young lady…As you say, my dear sir…
Do you love me, say! I certainly do
RODOLFO and MIMI
Love! Love! Love!