Superlatives tumble forth from one's thoughts when attempting to describe this magnificent production of the Puccini masterwork, filmed at Covent Garden before an enthusiastic audience, distinguished as it is by remarkable direction and singing with splendid staging and costume design made even more vital by effective and oft amusing business. Stage director John Copley's celebrated production for LA BOHEME remains in the repertoire after 30 years and more, due in large part to the emotional interplay among all of the cast that forms a moving ensemble piece, featuring both singing and acting, with designing and costumes of Julia Trevelyan Oman establishing an appropriate mise en scène of waning refinement along the left bank of 19th century Paris. Ileana Cotrubas was accorded worldwide fame after she replaced an indisposed Mirella Freni as Mimi in 1975 at La Scala a mere 15 minutes before curtain, garnering the hearts of the Milanese in attendance, and her transfixing performance enacted here, in a rôle that admittedly does not offer an extensive range of emotional engagement, displays her unique style of vocal finesse as well as that dramatic excitement for which the Romanian diva is admired, while the supreme imaginative temperament of baritone Thomas Allen as Marcello along with spirited Marilyn Zschau as Musetta highlight a cast that is impressive in its entirety. Lamberto Gardelli offers an affectionate reading for what is arguably the composer's best and certainly most structurally balanced score, extending in feeling from the comedic to the melancholic with but one clinker (amidst the horns), the conductor's unrivalled treatment of the open fifths during the first section of Act III being especially worthy of note. Gardelli's control of dynamics for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House matches the abilities of the soloists, most evidential in the case of lirico tenor Neil Shicoff as Rodolfo, a fervent performance in the van among the many in this film that additionally benefits from splendid sound quality, quite essential for complex but well-worked scenes such as occur during Acts II and III; altogether, then, the strongest operatic fare, not to be missed by devotees of acting and musical performance.
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