Puccini's Beloved 'Boheme,' Times Two William Berger, author of Puccini Without Excuses, sizes up two new and very different recordings of the composer's best-known opera. Berger says the beauty of Bohème lies in the little details of the characters' lives.

Puccini's Beloved 'Boheme,' Times Two

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"La Boheme" is one of the great classics of opera; the one work you should see if you've never seen an opera before. There are dozens of versions of Giacomo Puccini's masterwork out there. I counted 24 on Amazon before I lost track. Two more have just come out now. One with established stars and a huge budget, and the other on a small label with unknown young singers.

Would you be able to tell the difference? William Berger can and he's here to help us sort through them. Welcome, William Berger.

Mr. WILLIAM BERGER (Author, "Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer"): Thanks. Good to be here.

SEABROOK: Now, you wrote the book "Puccini Without Excuses: A Refreshing Reassessment of the World's Most Popular Composer."

Mr. BERGER: That's me.

SEABROOK: So, let's go ahead and listen to a little bit of each of these new versions. One is from Deutsche Grammophon, which is, of course, the big name in the classical music world of recording. The other is Telarc, which uses much lesser known voices here. So, what is this track we're going to listen to?

Mr. BERGER: We're going to listen to an aria called "D'onde lieta usci" from act 3. And this is Mimi, the heroine, breaking up with Rodolfo, the hero, in a very nice way. She says goodbye without rancor, with no hard feelings.

SEABROOK: Let's listen to the big Deutsche Grammophon version first.

(Soundbite of song "D'onde lieta usci")

Ms. ANNA NETREBKO (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

SEABROOK: William Berger, who are we listening to singing here?

Mr. BERGER: Anna Netrebko, who is a very big star at the moment. She's getting a lot of publicity. She's electrifying in person, an all-around performer.

SEABROOK: Now, let's listen to the Telarc recording.

(Soundbite of song "D'onde lieta usci")

Ms. NORAH AMSELLEM (Singer): (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

SEABROOK: So, who is the diva here?

Mr. BERGER: Her name is Norah Amsellem, and she's French and she sings in many of the world's great and small opera houses both. She has a very busy career.

SEABROOK: What should I be listening for? I think I hear a difference between these two recordings.

Mr. BERGER: Well, whenever anybody asks me what should I be listening for, I just tell them anything. Whatever you hear is right; there's no wrong. So, I'm going to turn this around. Isn't this scary? I'm going to turn this around and say what did you hear in the second one that you didn't hear in the first?

SEABROOK: I think I heard - I don't quite trust my ears on this - but I think I heard less dynamic control in the voice of the second one.

Mr. BERGER: Okay. You're blinding me with musical (unintelligible) edition here. I agree with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Thank you.

Mr. BERGER: I agree, but let me put it in the way that I would put it in my great musicological expertise. She's louder.

SEABROOK: Yes, she's louder. Is she…

Mr. BERGER: She's louder.

SEABROOK: …she's less controlled.

Mr. BERGER: Perhaps. Now, this is what's really interesting, and this to me is why it is possible and likely even that you will get two recordings of the same opera out at the same time. In the second, with Norah Amsellem, you get this feeling she's a little angrier…


Mr. BERGER: …about this breakup, right? And a little later in the aria, she has the wonderful line (Foreign language spoken) - farewell with no hard feelings. Does anyone ever breakup with you like that where they said, okay, goodbye and no hard feelings. Like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: It's a little sarcastic actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGER: Sarcastic and yet very real. And in the first recording we heard, Anna Netrebko, who is a wonderful singing actress, and she sounded a little more vulnerable, a little breathier. We're reminded that Mimi is very ill in this story. In fact, not to give away the story, but she's not going to make it at the end. And you can hear that.

So, what we had going on here are really two entirely different stories. That's why we have two different recordings.

And you know what's interesting? It doesn't matter what either diva intended to do. So, if Norah Amsellem either has less vocal control or just has a bigger voice, or whatever, it doesn't matter. Just by being a different person, it's going to tell a different story.

SEABROOK: Of course, it is Puccini, so it is lovely in either version.

Mr. BERGER: The problem with Boheme is the glory of Boheme. It always works no matter what. You can put Mickey and Minnie Mouse out there and someone will be crying in the audience. And it's really a problem. Somebody wrote an opera that's too good for its own good. Do you know what I mean?


Mr. BERGER: And I've heard it in barns with two pianos and really a tenor sounding like a tomcat in the moonlight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGER: And it still worked; it still gets you choked up. So, that's one of the things that's unique about Boheme. A lot of operas are like that to a certain extent. Boheme is completely like that. It's also the reason why it's done so often. It always works.

SEABROOK: And, William Berger, a final word about the two versions here, the two recordings. It's…

Mr. BERGER: Right.

SEABROOK: …not a David and Goliath situation, though I think I infer that you think the Deutsche Grammophon recording is a better one.

Mr. BERGER: Let's see, better, yes, it is better. However, they're both valid and they both need to be out there and they're both worth listening to. Another purpose for Boheme, since people know it so well or think they know it so well or it has this reputation of being so well known, it's a good way to introduce new singers.

SEABROOK: So, you argue that we should have two Bohemes coming out, when there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Bohemes already out.

Mr. BERGER: Only two this week?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: William Berger is the author of the NPR "Curious Listener's Guide to Opera." His most recent book was about Puccini and you can hear more excerpts from the two operas on the music section of our Web site, npr.org. William Berger, thanks so much for joining me.

Mr. BERGER: I'll come back any time to talk about Puccini or anything else.

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