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Great Singers Live: Mirella Freni

spacer Arias by Cilèa, Puccini, Bizet, Massenet, Verdi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky. Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Eichhorn/V. Ghiaurov. No texts or translations. BR Klassik 900303

Recordings Freni Cover lg 1111

This collection comprises arias from three Sunday concerts Freni did with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, in 1971, '83 and '87. In the case of most singers, there would be a nod to the passage of time causing an understandable diminution of vocal resources, and an acknowledgement of deepened interpretive gifts as compensation. With Mirella Freni, no such nod is necessary. What is immediately apparent and impressive is the way her instrument is basically unchanged in the sixteen years between the first and third concert. There's a slight darkening of the tone, a bit more amplitude of volume, an occasional intensification of delivery that marked her later work. Freni's art is about voice, and communication of passion through the voice. Even in the '90s, when she took up some of the great verismo roles, hers was a direct, unaffected effort. If this honesty of approach caused her work to stop short of that extra layer of imagination some opera fans refer to affectionately as "dementia," it also allowed her to hit the emotional bull's-eye when she was "on," and in a manner devoid of mannerism.

Freni's vocal generosity is present from the first aria, "Io son l'umile ancella," from Adriana Lecouvreur, spun out in full, sweeping lines, with a stunning pianissimo-to-fortissimo crescendo on the penultimate note. Mimì's "Mi chiamano" is astonishingly fresh and spontaneous from this veteran of the role. Lovely pianos and perfectly timed and weighted portamentos are so natural they seem to happen by themselves, and the acid-test section, beginning "Ma quando vien lo sgelo," delivers the requisite emotional wallop. Switching gears (and jumping from '71 to '87), Freni takes on Musetta; hers is a big-hearted party girl, playful and vocally brighter than her Mimì.

Tosca is a role Freni was clever enough to avoid in the opera house, but she took it on twice in the recording studio. The "Vissi d'arte" included here — the only selection from the 1983 concert — is sung with style and commitment but feels like rather heavy going after the climactic B-flat. More in the scope of her voice is a 1971 "Tu, che di gel sei cinta." Perhaps not sounding quite fragile or exhausted enough, Freni nevertheless captures Liù's gutsy, defiant side, as she confronts the ice princess and lets her (and us) have it with a thrilling pre-demise high B-flat. The Puccinian balancing act of strength and vulnerability is carried into the next excerpt from one of the soprano's most celebrated non-Puccini roles, Micaela. One recalls Freni stealing many a Carmen with her delivery of the big Act III aria. Here it is sung superbly, with all her characteristic tonal and dramatic virtues, undercut by her version of French. Schwas emerge as either/or sounds, except when produced as "shadow vowels" after consonants that shouldn't have them — when they're pronounced perfectly! Manon's "Adieu notre petite table" fares better in terms of diction and is meltingly sung, if perhaps too Italianate in style for some tastes.

Aida was not Freni's best role, but out of context her "Ritorna vincitor" has a lot going for it; still it does push the voice to its limits. Freni's graduation from Susanna to Mozart's Countess brought a marvelous "Dovo sono," the recitative full of anger and humiliation, the aria featuring a tearful piano second strophe. And don't miss the perfect trill at the conclusion — all too many Countesses do!

A byproduct of Freni's second marriage, to Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, was the addition of several Tchaikovsky heroines to her repertoire, most notably Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. Her Russian may sound acquired rather than innate, and she may not possess an authentic Slavic instrument, but her letter scene is alive with the heroine's risky impulsiveness, fear and longing. And Freni knows how to deliver Tchaikovsky's soaring (and plunging) vocal lines, while offering delicate dynamic shading when it is required. The Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Kurt Eichhorn (1971 and '83), and Freni's stepson Vladimir Ghiaurov (1987) offer the diva fine support. spacer

IRA SIFF

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