The glory of Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème is the totality of the show -- i.e., the overall effect of this Puccini classic as performed by attractive, youthful, singing actors in a brilliantly theatrical presentation that boasts top-drawer design elements. An audio-only recording of the show can't hope to represent more than a fraction of its appeal -- as compared to, say, the cast album of Rent, which preserves most of what's great about that Jonathan Larson rock musical based on Bohème. But if listening to the new Dreamworks album of the Luhrmann Bohème is by no means a substitute for seeing and hearing the show at the Broadway Theatre, the CD is still valuable and enjoyable in that it preserves compelling renditions of justly famous arias and ensembles by a remarkable collection of young artists.
If there had been some way to be certain in advance that the Luhrmann show would be a major hit, Dreamworks might have issued the cast album complete on two CDs, à la Rent. Instead, we get one disc of highlights representing about half of this short but sweet masterpiece. The rotating cast of principals is split up by act; Alfred Boe and Wei Huang sing Rodolfo and Mimi in Act I and (briefly) in Act II, while those roles are taken by David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva in Act III and by Jesús Garcia and Lisa Hopkins in Act IV. Marcello is sung by Eugene Brancoveanu in Acts II and IV and by Ben Davis in Act III, while Musetta is Jessica Comeau in Act II (which includes her famous waltz aria, "Quando m'en vo") and Chloë Wright in Acts III and IV.
The singers are so uniformly excellent that there seems little point in trying to name favorites, though I will say that I especially respond to Wei Huang's lovely, flexible soprano and David Miller's passionate, open-throated tenor. Conducted by musical director Constantine Kitsopoulos, the orchestra here sounds much fuller than it does in the theater -- probably because its size has been doubled for the recording. And the sound quality is exemplary.
In a wise and much appreciated attempt to convey the visual beauty of the production, Dreamworks has included numerous photos in the CD booklet, printed in large format and in full color. This is one of the handsomest packages you're ever likely to find for a Broadway cast album -- yet another way in which Baz Luhrmann's Bohème thrillingly surpasses all expectations.
With any luck, the Broadway Bohème may turn large numbers of opera neophytes into devotées of the art form. Those who experience the opera for the first time in this production may want to buy a complete recording, bearing in mind that some of the most beautiful music in the work comes in sections that are not represented on the Dreamworks disc. Since most of the full recordings include a libretto with English translation, such a purchase will also permit one to compare a traditional rendering of the text with the updated jargon of the Luhrmann show as reflected in the surtitles and in the cast album's booklet.
There is an embarrassment of riches among complete Bohèmes. The happy irony here is that many of the older recordings in the catalogue may be purchased at comparatively low prices, yet they're often superior to the newer entries. Among the bargains are two-CD sets starring Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi (London), Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker (RCA), and Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras (Phillips). Though Maria Callas never sang Bohème on stage, she made a fine recording of the score opposite Giuseppe Di Stefano. And though Arturo Toscanini's 1946 RCA recording isn't very good, it does hold historical interest in that Toscanini had conducted the opera at its premiere 50 years earlier.
Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti are considered by many opera buffs to have been definitive interpreters of Mimi and Rodolfo. They may be heard together in a studio recording that is willfully conducted by Herbert von Karajan or in a much less idiosyncratic (and less expensive) performance taped before a live audience in 1969 for Italian radio, led by Thomas Schippers. (The former is a London release; the latter, I believe, may now be found on more than one budget label.) If you like Angela Gheorghiu and hubby Roberto Alagna, they also have a decent Bohème to their credit.
But, for many listeners, the ne plus ultra among recordings of this opera remains the 1956 set conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and starring the incomparable Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Bjoerling, Robert Merrill, Lucine Amara, Giorgio Tozzi, and John Reardon. Originally released by RCA and now available on the EMI Classics label, this performance is -- you'll pardon the expression -- to die for.