Mirella Freni – "beautiful to look at, an actress of simple naturalness and overwhelming intelligence"
Mirella Freni, one of the greatest singers of all time, has died at the age of 84. Freni was a singer I returned to time and time again. By the time I was getting into opera in the early 1990s, Freni had been a legend for 30 years.
She grew up in Modena, Italy with one Luciano Pavarotti. They had the same wet nurse, the same voice teacher, and their mothers worked at the same factory. Together they created some of the greatest performances of the 1960s and 70s.
Freni with Pavorotti
It is a testament to Freni's artistry that all opera fans (including me) feel an intimate and personal connection to her and the characters she portrayed.
Here are my top five roles for Mirella Freni.
Micaëla in Carmen by Bizet. this is the very first role Freni ever performed. She appeared in a production of Carmen at the Modena Teatre Municipal on March 3, 1955. Her rendition of Micaëla’s aria is, by far, my favorite version. Freni was known for the consistency of her tone, phrasing, and vibrato throughout the entirety of her vocal range and this aria requires all of that plus a sincere vulnerability. As in all of these roles, it is almost as if the role was written for her.
Freni in Carmen
Salzburger Festspiele 1967
Zerlina in Don Giovanni. This is the role that established Freni as an international singer. She sang the role at the 1960 Glyndebourne Festival in a production which included Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna.
Freni in Don Giovanni
"Batti, batti, o bel Masetto"
Desdemona in Otello by Verdi. Freni was always able to present a character that was graceful and forgiving while retaining a purely feminine strength. Desdemona is a woman wrongly accused and ultimately murdered by the husband she loves and adores. The temptation is to portray a character that is bewildered and victimized but Freni always retains an element of nobility.
Freni as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello
With Placido Domingo
Mimi in La Boheme by Puccini. This is the role in which Mirella Freni will never be surpassed. She is Mimi. For me, there is no other. No one even comes close. Reviewer Alan Rich wrote in the New York Herald Tribune about Freni’s Metropolitan Opera Debut:
"Miss Freni is – well – 'irresistible' will do for a start. Beautiful to look at, an actress of simple naturalness and overwhelming intelligence, she used voice and gesture to create a Mimi of ravishing femininity and grace. The voice itself is pure and fresh, operating without seam from bottom to top, marvelously colored at every point by what seems to be an instinctive response to the urging of the text."
Freni as Mimi in La Boheme
"Si mi chiamano Mimi" at La Scala, 1965
Ciocio San in Madama Butterfly by Puccini. Freni never performed the role live. She claimed that the presence of a child during the third act was too much for her to handle emotionally. She did the entire third act at a Metropolitan Opera Gala in 1991 but there was no child present.
When it comes to recordings of Madama Butterfly, Freni is the gold standard. I think Renata Scotto is a close second. Maria Callas has never appealed to me in the role.
Freni as Cio-Cio San
In Pucini's Madame Butterfly
The Decca recording of Butterfly with Freni and von Karjan conducting might be the most beautiful recording of all time. Freni’s phrasing is perfection and the orchestral atmosphere with which von Karjan accompanies the singers is ideal. It doesn’t hurt that Pavarotti sings Pinkerton in this set. Placido Domingo is the tenor in a movie version that stars Freni and von Karajan.