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Puccini's Beloved 'Boheme,' Times Two

La Bohème is one of the great classics of opera — the one opera you should see if you've never been to an opera before. There are more than 70 recorded versions of Giacomo Puccini's masterwork, going all the way back to 1938.

Two more have just been released — one on a fancy label, with established stars and a big budget, and another on a smaller label with relatively unknown young singers. Could you tell the difference?

William Berger, author of Puccini Without Excuses, can. He joined forces with NPR's Andrea Seabrook to compare the new recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label, with superstar soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Rolando Villazón, with the new Telarc recording, featuring soprano Norah Amsellem and tenor Marcus Haddock.

Bohème Benchmarks

They started with the Act III aria called "D'onde lieta usci," in which the heroine, Mimi, breaks up with her boyfriend, Rodolfo. First Netrebko, then Amsellem.

"I think I heard less dynamic control in the voice of the second one," Seabrook says. Berger didn't disagree, but he thought the singer was simply louder than Netrebko.

"With Norah Amsellem," Berger says, "you get this feeling she's a little angrier about this breakup. And a little later in the aria, she has the wonderful line, 'addio senza rancor,' 'farewell, with no hard feelings.' She's a little more sarcastic, yet very real."

"Netrebko sounded a little more vulnerable, a little breathier. We're reminded that Mimi is very ill in this story, and you can hear that. So what we have going on here are two entirely different stories. That's why we have two different recordings."

Seabrook and Berger then sample the opera's very next scene, in which two couples are breaking up — and handling it differently. Rodolfo and Mimi are tender and sentimental. Marcello and Musetta are angry and sarcastic. Seabrook says that Netrebko and Villazón sound richer. Berger has a theory.

"Perhaps because they can get away with it because they are bigger names," Berger says, "Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón are doing more acting with their voices, and they are taking more chances. What you have with Haddock and Amsellem is just the gush of singing. And that works, too."

Foolproof Bohème

With the rapturous music washing over her, Seabrook says it's not a David-and-Goliath comparison. It's lovely in either recording.

"The problem with Bohème," Berger says, "is the glory of Bohème. It always works, no matter what. You could put Mickey and Minnie Mouse out there and someone will be crying in the audience. I've heard it in barns, with two pianos and a tenor sounding like a tomcat in the moonlight, and it still gets you choked up. That's also the reason why it's done so often. It always works."

Berger notes that some of the reasons for the opera's popularity might come as a surprise.

"It not like other operas," he says. "It's not about great people making important decisions. It's about the most inconsequential people you can imagine — the urban poor — and the little details in their lives." In Bohème there's talk of mundane things, like coffee, herring and a bonnet.

"Stupid little things, like in our lives," Berger says. "It's what this whole opera is made of, and that's why you can hear it hundreds of times."

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