Cause for celebration:
Five decades into her career,
Mirella Freni isn’t ready to say good-bye yet.
Time Out New York feature
“Who said that?” Soprano Mirella Freni reacts with mock pique when asked whether Sunday’s Metropolitan Opera Gala Anniversary Concert would be her New York farewell. “It’s not a farewell, not at all. When the time comes to say good-bye, I’ll be the one to say so!”
Knowing exactly what suits her has served Freni well throughout her half-century career. Now 70 and celebrating the 40th anniversary of her Met début, the legendary diva looks and sounds decades younger. Earlier this spring, she brought her newest portrayal, the title role in Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans, to Washington National Opera, dumbfounding audiences with the freshness of her singing. Yes, she cut short a few high notes, and her phrasing was less consistently supple than in years past. Still, few artists in the bloom of youth could match her impassioned portrayal of Tchaikovsky’s teenage Joan of Arc.
“Maid of Orleans took a lot of effort, because the vocal range is very challenging. But I loved it, and I worked with joy,” Freni says, reached by phone at her home in Modena, in central Italy. “And it’s not just a question of notes; I had to study the archaic Russian intently, so that I could be very free in my singing. That’s how I am: I like everything to be natural when I sing.”
That unaffected, all-embracing warmth is the hallmark of Freni’s charmed career. Her Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème may lack the ultimate vocal plushness of a Renata Tebaldi, the searching acuity of a Renata Scotto and the gut-wrenching impact of a Teresa Stratas, but no Mimì is more completely lovable. At the climax of “Mi chiamano Mimì,” Freni bathes listeners in the glow of the springtime sun, reaching out and wrapping them in the thrill of “April’s first kiss.” As Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (a role few Italian artists before her sang in Russian), Freni stops time in the Letter Scene, making the air itself quiver with the intoxicating force and depth of Tatyana’s passion. And she does it all with singing of radiant health and beauty, having transitioned slowly from lighter roles—Nanetta in Verdi’s Falstaff, Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette—to the tragic heroines of Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky.
At the same time, Freni ticks offf a list of operas she’s never performed onstage—“Butterfly, Tosca, Trovatore”—with the kind of pride that other singers reserve for wild successes. “You can’t do everything,” she says, calmly and with humility. “But I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished. I’ve always considered very carefullywhether a role was right for me. Maybe that’s why, at my age, I can still play Joan of Arc.”
The anniversary gala, a benefit for the Met’s pension fund, features veteran stars Frederica von Stade, Robert Lloyd and James Morris, along with current favorites Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Marcello Giordani and Salvatore Licitra. Hvorostovsky recalls a 1990 performance of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades alongside Freni as “one of the greatest highlights of my career,” and and states with awe, “She is a role model for us all.” Act III of Onegin will pair Freni and Hvorostovsky in this work for the first time. Also scheduled are excerpts from Maid of Orleans, Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (another Freni specialty), and operas by Massenet, Boito, Giordano and Thomas.
Besides care in choosing roles, Freni cites a happy and fiercely guarded private life as a key to her artistic longevity. “I had my triumphs, then went home and closed the door behind me,” she says. “A different person lives here: Mirella the mother, the wife, the grandmother. At home, I don’t talk about music.” Her voice thickens when she mentions her late husband, bass Nikolai Ghiaurov, but brightens when she speaks of her master classes at the Centro Universale del Bel Canto, near Modena.
“Many roles are now behind me, but I prefer to leave them sooner rather than later,” Freni says. “Besides, I have my students and so many other things I want to do.” Future plans include concerts in Europe and a return to Washington to sing with Plácideo Domingo. Freni’s lusty laugh belies her wary sentiments. “I can’t go on like this forever, because I’ll become more and more of a little old lady!”
The Metropolitan Opera salutes Mirella Freni on Sunday 15.
Jewel boxes: Freni’s
finest recordings? Start here.
Newcomers and seasoned fans alike will find much to enjoy in Mirella Freni: A Celebration (Decca) and The Very Best of Mirella Freni (EMI). The former offers nearly three hours of prime Freni, including Verdi and verismo arias, while the latter highlights her earliest recordings.
Must-have complete portrayals include Freni’s Amelia in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra under Claudio Abbado (DG), among the greatest of all opera sets; her Mimì in the classic Bohème led by Herbert von Karajan (Decca), or in freshest voice apposite Nicolai Gedda’s Rodolfo (EMI); her Suzel in Mascagni’s comedy L’amico Fritz (EMI), capturing her and Luciano Pavarotti at their most irresistible; and her first recording of Pucini’s Manon Lescaut, in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s voluptuous reading (DG).
More controversial is Freni’s Aida under Karajan (EMI)—she lacks the heroic thrust traditionally associated with the role, but conveys the anguish of Verdi’s enslaved princess with arresting intensity. She is an affecting Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin under James Levine (DG) and a heartrending Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello for Carlos Kleiber (Myto and Opera d’Oro).
Top Freni DVD picks include her shattering Madama Butterfly (Decca) and earthy, delectable Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (DG, to be issued in June), both studio films directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; her Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani, under Riccardo Muti’s torrid leadership (Kultur); and again her Mimì, captured in 1965 in Franco Zeffirelli’s La Scala staging (DG), and still beguiling a quarter-century later opposite Pavarotti’s Rodolfo (Kultur).