- La bohème, opera
It is easy to approach an album that's been hyped to the extent this one has with a certain amount of skepticism. Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón are superstars and have made a much-praised album of duets, so their pairing in La Bohème (after their 2005 Traviata) has been touted as a major recording event. It's a pleasure to report that the result fully lives up to the high expectations it promised. The whole enterprise sounds so youthful and impetuous that it makes it possible to hear the opera in a new way. Puccini, of course, wrote the youthful impetuosity into the score, but it has rarely felt so authentically spontaneous and artless. The fact that the principals are in fact young, with young-sounding voices, is an important part of the CD's effectiveness. Also essential is Bertrand de Billy's vibrant conducting. The opera's opening is taken at an unusually zippy tempo; it sounds terrific and creates the sense that these young artists are genuinely happy guys whose hijinks are the inevitable expression of their exuberance. The singers make the scene work because they sound so natural and unmannered that they seem to be making it up as they go along. The level of silliness at the beginning of the act makes the intimacy that develops between Rodolfo and Mimì all the sweeter, and de Billy gives free rein to Puccini's lyrical outpouring at the end of the act. The four principals are extraordinarily fine. From Villazón's first lines, his passionate intensity sets him apart from his more carefree friends, and the ease with which he becomes enthralled by Mimì seems inevitable and entirely believable. The warmth and clarity of his voice and the naturalness of his demeanor makes him a truly memorable Rodolfo. Anna Netrebko's voice can be velvety or ethereal, and blends beautifully with his; her gentleness makes her an ideal foil to Villazón's impetuosity. At the end of the first act, they just sound so blissfully happy. Boaz Daniel is a splendid Marcello, strongly characterized, singing with fullness and vigor. Nicole Cabell's Musetta is vocally gorgeous -- both pure and voluptuous -- but her role is not quite as incisively and distinctively characterized as those of the other principals. Stéphane Degout as Schaunard, Vitalij Kowaljow as Colline, and Tiziano Bracci as Benoit are wonderfully appealing performers, and make a strong contribution to the effectiveness of the CD. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks plays with brilliance and suppleness under de Billy's inspired direction. Deutsche Grammophon's sound is expansive and atmospheric, with excellent presence and balance.