Most helpful critical review
62 of 73 people found the following review helpful
soundtrack problems, still plenty of goosebumps
on July 4, 2007
Bear with me here, I'll get to La Boheme in a minute (and I will also admonish my fellow reviewers).
I've seen a lot of live operas and listened to a lot of opera CDs (and LPs), and one big, difference is that in a live production, it's only the singers' belted-out notes that the audience hears well. The softer notes leading up to and following those notes often are just barely audible above the orchestra. I think it's because one voice, no matter how well-trained, simply isn't as loud as a collection of instruments. And it seems that even the belted-out notes require a little cooperation from the orchestra in backing off a bit. On a CD (or LP for that matter), all sung notes are audible, because the singers have their faces inches from a good quality microphone. Call me corrupted by technology, but I like the CD sound better, except for whatever sound quality is lost in the recording process itself. The balance between the orchestra and the singers is better.
Now, let's understand something about opera DVDs generally. You can't have opera singers holding microphones on camera. So there are two choices in getting the singers' voices recorded, neither of them perfect. One can try to record as they're performing, either live or on a set and in costume, using either a parabolic or shotgun microphone. This gives you perfect lip-sync, but sometimes gives you the out-of-balance sound typical of live performances (but not the clear distortion-free sound of a live performance). I'm not sure why this happens; I think it must be because the microphone operator's aim isn't as good as it should be. The other option is to lip-sync, even if that means with the same person. This yields a more balanced sound, but sometimes the lip-sync-ing is not perfect, and sounds emerge from closed mouths. Personally, I prefer the latter, as I prefer the better sound balance, and can tolerate a little imperfection in the synchronization.
This La Boheme, recording, like all the live @ the Met recordings, uses the parabolic or shotgun microphone technique, with all the shortcomings that that implies. Pavarotti and Scotto are (well, were) among the best in the world, of course, and live up to their reputations--when you can hear them. All the minor-role singers are excellent too. The important duets toward the end of in Act 1 are mostly ok, but much of the singing-over-singing in Act 2 suffers from the poor-aim problem and is disappointing. You turn up the volume and just barely hear the lead-up, then are somewhat satisfied by the punch note, and then the following accompanying chord from the orchestra flattens your lampshades. Act 3 is OK, since there are fewer people singing at one time. Act 4 is pretty much the same for the same reason, with only a few faded sung notes. The last part of Act 4 was not a great turn-on for me, although I have to admit, I have more problems with Puccini on that issue than any singer, conductor, microphone operator, or recording engineer. I guess I just don't think drawn-out death scenes are amenable to great music. I feel the same way about the last parts of Traviata, Norma, and Carmen for that matter. I find them tedious, but that's just me, I guess.
The fidelity of the sound is ok, considering the age of the performance (at least on my equipment, a pretty good Klipsch 2.1 system--better than Bose but not really hi-fi). They must have cut the DVD from a pretty decent master tape. They got a separate grant for "restoration," so maybe that had something to do with it. However, throughout the opera there is some sort of a growl on the soundtrack that sounds a bit like muffled speech, as though there was a little leakage between the main microphone signals and the instructions from the director to the camera or microphone operators.
The performance is really quite good, even if somewhat staid Met standard. I think I like the applause after the arias, duets, and at the ends of acts, although they let it go on a little too long. I have the DG Cosi (lip-synced) and, while it has excellent sound quality, it doesn't have applause, which I must admit, I miss. But I really could have done without Tony Randall's synopses--I just skipped over them (I'd have preferred Walter Matthau, but probably would have skipped over him too). Of course, La Boheme doesn't really lend itself to the lavish staging that is so typical of Met productions, but, the sets are well done, and it's as good a Café Momus as I've seen anywhere. The acting is as good as you'd expect. One minor goof that I was expecting was that Murphy's law would decree that among a bunch of actors complaining about being cold but singing their hearts under hot lights in a warm theatre, someone's bound to start sweating visibly. Indeed, it happens in Act 4 where, in the coat aria, Colline's face has quite a sheen on it.
Well, OK, now to my admonishment. All you reviewers out there, you're not giving me everything I want. TELL ME ABOUT THE SOUND QUALITY! It's really important. When I read reviews, they tell me about everything else, and I'm getting tired of reading every review twice looking for something that isn't there. As far as I'm concerned, sound quality and singing artistry are the two most important features. Even if you do have the latter, you won't enjoy it unless you also have the former. When I pop that DVD in my machine and crank up the volume, I want to hear something close to a live performance in terms of crispness and frequency balance and not a distorted and/or muddy mess, as I have in so many opera DVDs. And I'm counting on you to tell me which I'll get. For example, this Boheme is a little turbid, spotty, but generally not muddy or too distorted. So, to summarize, despite a few shortcomings in the sound, there're still a few goosebumps in this DVD.