F. PAUL DRISCOLL salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed by Joe Nemeth in Modena, Italy
Makeup and hair by Marc Abram for La Tribù
© Joe Nemeth 2013
During the final season of the old Metropolitan Opera House at 39th and Broadway, a number of distinguished singers made their company debuts. Among the new artists that season were Grace Bumbry, Montserrat Caballé, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Reri Grist, James King, Alfredo Kraus, Pilar Lorengar, Sherrill Milnes and Thomas Stewart, all of whom established themselves as valuable players — and audience favorites — during the company's early years at its new Lincoln Center home, adding to the Met's continuing reputation for excellence in scores of performances during the succeeding years and decades. But one new singer that season, an enchanting thirty-year-old lyric soprano from Modena, would achieve a career milestone that few could have predicted when she made her Met debut, as Mimì, on September 29, 1965. Forty years later, Mirella Freni was still singing — and singing beautifully — when she was honored with a gala at the Met that celebrated the fortieth anniversary of her company debut and the fiftieth anniversary of her professional debut. It was, understandably, an emotional occasion for Freni and for her fans, but the soprano's self-possession was extraordinary as she sang selections from Manon, Adriana Lecouvreur, Eugene Onegin and Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans with elegance, generosity and the extraordinary emotional directness that had touched the hearts of her audiences for a half-century. It was to be Freni's last professional stage appearance, but she invested her music with the urgency and commitment of a singer in her prime. Freni, who never gave an audience less than her best, ended her Met career as she began it — at the top.
Of all the great singers of her generation, Freni seemed to be the most grounded — an authentic prima donna who had nothing of the diva about her. Director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who worked on several productions with Freni, including television films of Madama Butterfly and Le Nozze di Figaro, once told OPERA NEWS that the soprano was "a real, concrete woman with great poesia. Everything she does is absolutely real." In a 1997 OPERA NEWS interview with Albert Innaurato, the artist herself observed, "It helps to make a contact between the singing and feeling in real life. Life nails you to something real in the falsehood of the stage. I have always felt a connection between daily life and art. I've always known where the stage door was, to get in and get out. Some others get lost in the maze. My reality has been my key."
Freni became an opera fan as a child, attending performances in her hometown, where she would make her professional debut, as Micaela in Carmen, in 1955. After her daughter was born, Freni hesitated over the choice between home and a career, but she decided to resume singing with the understanding that she would stop if her career didn't take off. It did. Beginning in 1960, Freni attracted significant international attention with her Glyndebourne performances as Zerlina, Susanna and Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore; she also scored successes with her debuts, as Nannetta in Falstaff,at Covent Garden and La Scala. Authentic stardom arrived with her Mimì in Franco Zeffirelli's 1963 La Scala staging of La Bohème, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who was to become one of the soprano's fiercest champions. Puccini's little seamstress was a perfect vehicle for Freni's sovereign gifts of modesty, sincerity and gorgeously spun legato; she was to remain a ravishing, untouchable Mimì for the next twenty-five years.
When she was still in her thirties, Freni began to take on roles outside the standard list of lyric-soprano heroines; paced by Karajan, she gave particularly vibrant performances of Verdi's Desdemona and Elisabetta di Valois at Salzburg. Freni added the latter role to her Met repertory when she returned to the company in 1983, after an absence of more than fourteen years. For opera-lovers of my generation, who had come to know Freni's work chiefly through her recordings, her sympathetic, highly feminine Elisabetta was a revelation — a performance of unimpeachable dignity and luscious timbre, magnificently sung and idiomatically phrased. Freni set a high standard that she maintained throughout the long, productive Indian Summer of her Met career, which held Mimì, Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Adriana Lecouvreur, Micaela, Tatiana, Alice Ford and the title character in Umberto Giordano's Fedora — an old-fashioned verismomelodrama that gained a large measure of genuine emotional truth thanks to Freni's superbly committed performance as an imperious Russian princess.
Freni was a judicious singer; she never tried to give more than she had vocally, and she consistently limited her exposure to roles that she knew would be too testing. She refused Karajan's offers of Leonora in Trovatore and Turandot. Elvira in Ernani was set aside after a single run at La Scala (and despite offers to sing the role elsewhere). She recorded Cio-Cio-San twice but never sang the full role in the theater. As Freni told OPERA NEWS in 1987, "I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice. Some singers think they are gods who can do everything. But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities."
In 2010, Orfeo issued a CD set of more than a dozen live Freni performances from the Vienna State Opera, beginning with a selection from a 1963 Bohème and ending with two cuts from a 1995 Fedora. In almost three hours of music, the consistency of her accomplishment — the unfailing, timeless beauty of her artistry — is astonishing. Every time Freni sang, it was a gala performance.
F. PAUL DRISCOLL