A couple of week’s ago I reviewed the recording of the 2020 revival of Richard Jones’ production of La Bohème at Covent Garden. I said in that review that I wanted to get hold of the original first run recording, which I have done, albeit on DVD rather than Blu-ray. Comparing them was really very interesting.
First off, I must emphasize that the differences are really quite subtle and I’ll probably make more of them than is reasonable but the overall effect is tangible to me. The 2017 production feels more like a very good, but essentially conservative, production of La Bohème. I think if I had seen it without having seen the revival I would have enjoyed it for the music making but not thought it anything remarkable.
So what are the differences? The biggest I think is Marius Kwiecien as Marcello. Kwiecien is big, powerful and slightly menacing. He brings out the more boisterous side in Michael Fabiano’s Rodolfo. One effect of this is that the contrast in the nature of the relationships between Rodolfo/Mimi and Marcello/Musetta is less clear. This is reinforced by Fabiano’s Rodolfo. I don’t think he’s as subtle or nuanced an actor as Charles Castronovo and it comes out in the back half of Act 3 where he doesn’t convey the degree of anguish or selflessness at giving up Mimi that Castronovo does. That said his voice is a more ideal Puccini tenor. His high notes have that almost indescribable bell like quality that raises the hairs on your neck.
There’s less difference in the performance of the women. Maybe Yoncheva in the 2020 version does a slightly better job of conveying how ill Mimi is but Nicole Car is also very fine and she has great chemistry with Fabiano. Their duets are the musical highlights of the 2017 disk and nothing in the revival quite matches them. Simone Mihai sings Musetta in both performances and comes over in very much the same way in Acts 2 and 4 though inevitably the dynamic with Kwiecien in Act 3 is different from that with Filonczyk. Antonio Pappano conducts on the earlier disk and his very red blooded approach, while thrilling, probably contributes to making the overall performance seem more conventional.
Technically both recordings are excellent. Rhodri Huw maybe uses more close ups on the earlier disk but it’s not obtrusive. Unsurprisingly the DVD suffers a bit relative to Blu-ray in the crowd scenes in Act 2 and in Act 3 but it’s pretty decent. There’s an extra with short cast interviews which is worth watching as it does give insight into the way the singers see their characters and there’s the same short piece with Pappano talking about the music. Other details are the same.
So which disk do I prefer? I really don’t know. I remain intrigued by the nuances in the revival recording but I’m also deeply impressed by the music making; especially Fabiano and Car on the earlier one. Both are very good performances which really do get at what La Bohème is all about.