14 September 2023

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Puccini: “La Bohème”

Karajan conducted many works whose interpretations were considered to be milestones. But even in his repertoire there are few pieces that brought him such complete and constant success as Puccini’s “La Bohème” – both on stage and in the studio.

The bittersweet story about a group of penniless artists in Paris was set to music with the most enchanting score in Giacomo Puccini’s oeuvre and has been one of the best-loved of all operas since its first successful performance in Palermo in 1896. Karajan was 50 years younger than Puccini, that means when he conducted his first interpretation of “La Bohème” in Ulm in 1930, Puccini had only been dead for 6 years. Puccini must have been a “contemporary” composer for him.

After this early encounter, Karajan didn’t perform the work for more than 32 years (apart from some excerpts recorded with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Ljuba Welitsch in 1948). The next occasion was a new production by the Scala di Milano in January 1963 directed by Franco Zeffirelli and it was designed to be the most iconic production of this opera (it is still in the repertoire of the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera). In 1963, Karajan was the artistic director of the Vienna State Opera and he presented the Milanese production in Vienna the same autumn.

“To Italian critics, the production was a milestone in the opera’s stage history […] and for Karajan a representative example of how quality productions can thrive in a commercially competitive world. It had been cast from within the Scala company; and though Zeffirelli’s staging was expensive to mount, the costs were defrayed through co-productions, touring agreements and film and television rights. Nowadays, such strategies are commonplace; yet when Karajan and a handful of like-minded folk first staked out the route, they were treated with great suspicion (Richard Osborne).”

This great suspicion revealed itself when Karajan engaged a so-called “maestro suggeritore” for his Italian cast, a mixture of prompter and assistant conductor, quite well paid. The union announced a strike but not the day when it would happen. The Austrian population was split into two factions: pro Karajan and contra Karajan. When Gundula Janowitz got into an argument about it on a tramway she was almost physically attacked. After all, the strike started 1 minute before the premiere and caused complete confusion.

The premiere was called off and took place three days later without any prompter. It was a triumph with thirty-eight curtain calls but it also was the beginning of the end of Karajan’s period of rule. Two years later, this production was also filmed.

It took Karajan quite a while to find the perfect cast for a studio recording. In 1972, he produced it with Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti, Rolando Panerai, Gianni Maffeo, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Elizabeth Harwood and the Berlin Philharmonic. It is definitely one of Karajan’s greatest achievements and widely regarded as the best recording of this opera.

The Salzburg Easter Festival also presented the Karajan / Zeffirelli “Bohème” in 1975, again with Freni, Pavarotti, Panerai and this time with Renate Holm as Musetta. Holm recalled:

“One day I got a call from his closest staff member, André Mattoni: ‘Dear Renate, Maestro Karajan would like to cast you for his Easter Festival as Musetta in La Bohème. But because of the size of the stage, he would like you to sing the Musetta aria for him in Salzburg. Would you do that?’ ‘Of course, with pleasure!’ I said and drove to Salzburg the next day. The audition was at 5 pm. When I went to the Festspielhaus I was really surprised to see the set of the ‘Schusterstube’ on stage. Karajan arrived and thanked me very politely and benignly for making the audition possible. He said it might seem strange to sing Musetta in this set but there was a performance ‘Meistersinger’ that same evening.”

So Renate Holm sang the aria of Musetta, a denizen of the Parisian demi-monde, in a 16th century Nuremberg setting. The following next year she performed in “Bohème” – in a proper set.

Karajan’s long-awaited return to the Vienna State Opera in 1977, 13 years after his wrathful resignation from the position as artistic director, caused a sensation in Vienna. Karajan wanted to present his Salzburg productions of “Lohengrin” and “Die Meistersinger” but when asked whether the Salzburg sets would fit the State Opera stage, set designer Schneider-Siemssen replied: “Herr von Karajan, you are a pilot. Tell me, can you get a jumbo jet into your garage?” Among the three operas Karajan finally conducted was “La Bohème” with Mirella Freni and José Carreras. The success was unparalleled. “At the end of the final performance of ‘La Bohème’ on 20 May, the ovations lasted forty-five minutes. The stage crew tried lowering the fire curtain but had to raise it again as the tumult continued (Richard Osborne).”

In an interview with Pia Bernauer, the former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, Clemens Hellsberg, recalls these unforgettable performances.

Renate Holm: “Wer seiner Seele Flügel gibt…” Amaltea Signum Verlag. Wien. 2017

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

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