Mirella Freni, 1935-2020
February 2020 in People
Stephen Hastings pays tribute to the great soprano
The essential facts are easily remembered. Mirella Freni (originally Fregni) was born in Modena on 27 February 1935 and died in the same city on 9 February 2020. Her first operatic role was Micaëla in Carmen, sung in Italianat Modena’s Teatro Comunale on 3 February 1955. Her last was Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans, performed in the original Russian at the Washington National Opera on 11 April 2005. A month later Freni retired from the stage after a gala concert at the Met celebrating her 50-year career. During that half-century she sang 34 roles in three languages, plus another 11 on disc alone. Her entire operatic repertoire—even the roles she sang in only one production, such as Handel’s Romilda (Serse), Scarlatti’s Griselda, Bellini’s Beatrice, Offenbach’s Antonia (Les Contes d’Hoffmann) and Boito’s Margherita (Mefistofele)—is preserved on audio recordings. And there are videos of her in more than 20 operas, ranging from such lavish international productions as Karajan’s Carmen (1967) and Otello (1973) to RAI TV’s black-and-white broadcasts of Piccinni’s La buona figliola (1969) and Massenet’s Manon (1966). Freni’s is thus an exceptionally well-documented career, and, although no detailed chronology has yet been published, even a quick search in La Scala’s online archive confirms both the high artistic profile she achieved from the early 1960s onwards and her gradual progress from light-lyric parts to a dramatically charged spinto repertoire. That progress didn’t prevent her from continuing to enchant audiences with her signature role of Mimì in La Bohème, which featured in her repertoire from 1957 to 1999.
Freni had been brought up in an opera-loving family. Her mother was at a performance of Bizet’s I pescatori di perle just a few hours before she gave birth to Mirella (the first of four children). An uncle helped nurture the precocious talent of a niece who was singing along with Toti Dal Monte’s recording of Lucia’s Mad Scene at an age when most children haven’t even learnt to read, and a grandmother would regularly join the teenage Mirella in the queue for gallery seats at the Teatro Comunale. Freni received a solid technical training from Luigi Bertazzoni in Modena and Ettore Campogalliani in Mantua. Equally important, from her adolescent years onwards, was her daily practice with the young pianist and coach who was to become her husband (and father of her only child)—Leone Magiera—and her regular exchange of ideas with her Modena-born colleague Luciano Pavarotti (they even shared a wet nurse as babies), with whom she formed a memorable, three-decade partnership in staged and/or recorded performances of L’elisir d’amore, La figlia del reggimento, I puritani, La traviata, Manon (in Italian), Mefistofele, Pagliacci, L’amico Fritz, Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
There was nothing exclusive about that partnership, however. Nor was Freni ever one of those operatic stars who prefer to shine alone. She rarely gave solo recitals and she truly relished the collaboration with many of her fellow singers. At La Scala, Gianni Raimondi was her Fritz on the opening night of the 1963-4 season, and her initial partner in the soon-to-be-legendary productions of La Bohème (directed by Franco Zeffirelli, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, 1963) and Simon Boccanegra (Giorgio Strehler and Claudio Abbado, 1971).He was also in the cast when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Puccini’s opera in 1964. Her other Rodolfos ranged from Franco Corelli (who also played Calaf to her Liù and Roméo alongside her Juliette) to Roberto Alagna. In Bellini, Donizetti and Gounod she found a congenial partner in Alfredo Kraus. Nicolai Gedda and Jon Vickers collaborated with her a number of times, including on fine studio recordings of La Bohème and Otello (conducted by Thomas Schippers and Karajan respectively). José Carreras’s voice blended beautifully with hers when Karajan adopted a more lyrical approach to Don Carlo and Aida in the 1970s. And Plácido Domingo was perhaps her favourite tenor partner in the latter half of her career. They were both involved in the unforgettable Zeffirelli production of Otello under Carlos Kleiber at La Scala in 1976 and a splendid Aida at Houston Grand Opera in 1987. They starred in recordings of Faust (under Georges Prêtre), Ernani (Riccardo Muti), La forza del destino (Muti) and Manon Lescaut (Giuseppe Sinopoli) and together they brought new popularity to Giordano’s Fedora at La Scala and the Met in the 1990s. It was Carreras who sang Loris Ipanov (in Fedora) for Freni’s final performances at Covent Garden in 1994. In those decades Freni also shared the stage as often as possible with the great Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, who had sung with her early on in Don Giovanni and Faust and became her offstage partner in the late 1970s, after her divorce from Magiera. He had himself spent his apprentice years in the Soviet Union and did much to encourage Freni’s subsequent assumption of three Tchaikovsky roles: Tatyana (first performed in Chicago in 1984), Lisa and Joan of Arc.
Freni was such a collaborative, engaging, conscientious and technically reliable singer (her intonation was excellent and her ability to deliver the goods vocally rarely varied from one performance to the next) that it is hardly surprising that she got on so well with her colleagues. She was one of the last sopranos who had the good fortune to work regularly with great Italian directors (Luchino Visconti, Zeffirelli, Strehler) capable of functioning creatively within the confines of a score’s musical dramaturgy. And she soon won the affection of the greatest conductors of her era, with Karajan exercising the strongest influence. It was he who chose her for the career-changing Scala production of La Bohème, and for the heavier Verdi roles (Desdemona, Elisabetta, Aida) that she took on at the Salzburg Festival in the 1970s. He also presided over her one failure: a new Scala production of La traviata in 1964 from which she withdrew after reacting provocatively to the audience’s whistles on the first night.
With that one exception, Freni was quick to gain critical approval both in Italy and elsewhere. After winning the prestigious Viotti competition in Vercelli in 1957, her career soon took her abroad: first to Holland and Germany and then to Glyndebourne, where she made her British debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni in 1960, returning in the same role the following year and for both Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Adina in L’elisir d’amore the year after (she later sang Zerlina and Susanna at Covent Garden). Freni always said that her characteristic self-discipline owed much to Jani Strasser’s rigorous training at the Sussex festival. When (as a substitution for Joan Carlyle) she appeared as Nannetta in Falstaff (conducted by Giulini and directed by Zeffirelli) at Covent Garden in 1961, Andrew Porter described her as ‘the soprano we have been waiting for’ with a ‘sweet flexible voice under perfect control, and an innate musicality to irradiate and make eloquent everything she sings’; J.B. Steane recalled that ‘never had Nannetta’s response, “Anzi rinnova come fa la luna”, risen more blissfully to its high note, which holds out on a moonlit thread the promise of eternal love’. Freni’s high notes did indeed bloom luxuriantly, at every dynamic level, throughout her career, to the delight of audiences worldwide. Steane, in fact, reminds us that, right from the beginning, ‘this was a voice with unusual fullness of tone: she was to the typical soubrette as Sutherland was to the average coloratura’.
Part of the excitement of re-hearing her today in her first two Mozart roles (she also sang
a few performances as Countess Almaviva) derives from the well-modulated richness of sound enhancing the colourful diction of a native Italian singer entirely at home psychologically as Susanna and Zerlina. Even in the mid ’70s, when she made Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film of Le nozze di Figaro (interacting with Hermann Prey, Kiri Te Kanawa and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), her Susanna had a three-dimensional humanity that no other soprano has quite equalled. This film is surely Freni’s most fascinating legacy as an actress: never have her face and body seemed so mobile and varied in expression, reflecting her insinuating delivery of Da Ponte’s libretto. This astute, homespun character was instantly congenial to a singer who herself came from a relatively humble family and had had to learn how to cope good-humouredly with household chores and other responsibilities from an early age. A similarly down-to-earth vivacity was displayed in Freni’s penultimate role: that of the washerwoman Caterina Hubscher in Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gêne, first performed in Catania in 1997. The middle register was less well-oiled than it had been, but her acting was totally spontaneous and compelling in detail.
Spontaneity was a basic tenet of Freni’s artistic creed. She avoided anything that smacked of showiness or artifice in vocal technique, which explains why she never cultivated the almost disembodied high pianissimi displayed by her close contemporary Renata Scotto, who also had a smoother legato than her colleague’s and a more sophisticated coloratura technique. They were relatively friendly rivals—their duets recorded by Decca in 1978 are well worth hearing—and they followed parallel paths when they shifted into heavier repertoire in the 1970s. Freni was the more cautious of the two, prolonging her career much longer and avoiding any conspicuous signs of vocal decline. Some critics commented (not unfairly) on a slight loss of sweetness in her tone, a gradual loosening of her vibrato at full volume, and a more limited range of dynamics, and felt that she lacked the sheer glamour needed for Verdi’s more aristocratic heroines and for such quintessential prima donna roles as Cilea’s Adriana and Giordano’s Fedora. But audiences were unanimously enthusiastic and the sincerity and vocal sturdiness of these portrayals have stood up well to the test of time. In her Tatyana and Joan of Arc we perceive something even more remarkable: a feeling for the words that is rare in non-Russian singers, and a youthfulness of spirit that defies the passing of the decades. Freni’s distinctive physiognomy maintained its wide-eyed freshness on stage right to the end. Similarly, as in her subsequent work as a teacher (taken very seriously until a degenerative illness took control of her body and mind), her implacable imitations of the artificial and constricted tone produced by all too many pupils were tempered by a joyful warmth of feeling when things were going well. She never forgot what it was like to be young.