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Mirella Freni – The Opera Singer
Mirella Freni (soprano)
other soloists incl. Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Nicolai Gedda (tenor); Sesto Bruscantini (baritone); Gösta Winbergh (tenor); Alain Vanzo (tenor); Franco Corelli (tenor); Jon Vickers (tenor); Luciano Pavarotti (tenor); Placido Domingo (tenor); José Carreras (tenor) and Piero Cappuccilli (baritone); orchestras and choruses conducted by Otto Klemperer; Edward Downes; Riccardo Muti; Francesco Molinari-Pradelli; Thomas Schippers; Michel Plasson; Alain Lombard; Herbert von Karajan; Franco Ferraris; Gianandrea Gavazzeni; Antonino Votto; Leone Magiera and Georges Prêtre
rec. 1962 – 1986
Full tracklist at end of review
EMI CLASSICS ICON 2062532 [4 CDs: 76:43 + 78:32 + 77:30 + 77:57]
Experience Classicsonline


It seems that Mirella Freni has always been around, even to those of us who started listening to opera in the early 1960s. She remains a relative youngster, born in 1935. But she set out early, making her stage debut before she turned 20 – as Micaëla in Carmen at Modena. This was for many years one of her signature roles and she sang it in opera houses for almost 25 years and then recorded it three times plus taking part in Karajan’s film of the opera. She bade farewell to the stage only three years ago, aged 70. Longevity as an opera singer is often a result of clever husbandry of the vocal resources, and Mirella Freni was wise. After her initial successes she took time out for four years, marrying her singing teacher and giving birth to her only child, a daughter named Micaela. After resuming the career she was very careful to accept only roles that suited her lyric soprano. It was not until she was well past forty that she gradually took on some lirico-spinto roles, three of which are featured in this collection.

She recorded extensively, initially for EMI, a company with which she had a long relationship. There were also a number of highly successful operas for Decca in the 1970s – La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Mefistofele and Guglielmo Tell, all of them with her childhood friend Luciano Pavarotti.  Freni later also recorded several sets for DG.

The present selection spans almost 25 years and there are few signs of aging. One should bear in mind that when she recorded La forza del destino with Muti she was already past 50. Her DG Butterfly and a Decca recital from even later are just as fresh.

What we have in this box is material from three solo recitals from the 1960s, conducted by her first husband, Leone Magiera and by Antonino Votto and Franco Ferraris. There are also a couple of excerpts from a contemporaneous duet record with Nicolai Gedda. The rest is material culled from various complete opera sets. All of it seems to have been fed into a food processor and mixed into a hotchpotch. There is no discernible logic about the programming, neither chronological nor thematic. Maybe the object was to make every one of the four discs as varied as possible. Thanks to the utter consistency of Mirella Freni’s voice we never get a feeling of jumping back and forth through a career. I would still have preferred a more evidently thought-through design. The comparable Icon portrait of Giuseppe Di Stefano, which I reviewed recently, was much better in that respect.

On the other hand this is practically the only criticism I can pose against this issue. With very well filled discs - more than five hours playing time - we get as rounded a portrait of Ms Freni’s repertoire and career as is possible from one company’s archives. It is also good to hear her in duets. The Karajan Aida in particular gives us opportunities to hear her in true dramatic situations with an almost complete Nile scene and the entire tomb scene.

The earliest recordings here are the two arias from La bohème, recorded in 1962 and 1963. I have always regarded this as one of the best recordings of this opera. Freni makes a truly lovely Mimi. I have a number of outstanding versions of La bohème and, together with Victoria de los Angeles, Freni is the most enchanting seamstress of them all. Her Rodolfo was Nicolai Gedda and of him we hear only Si in the first aria. They got together again a few years later in L’elisir d’amore, another top contender, and together they also recorded duets at about the same time. Sonnambula and Lucia di Lammermoor are represented here and these are the only excerpts from these operas by Freni. Gedda is his usual keen and sensitive self in all this. Freni, though no coloratura virtuoso, is more attractive than some mechanical nightingales. They sound well together and Gedda has openly declared that Mirella Freni was his favourite soprano.

There is more bel canto repertoire in Don Pasquale, and this is still another set that has claims to be a first choice. Sesto Bruscantini’s flexible voice has dried out a bit, compared to his early Cetra recording from 1950, but his expressivity and timing are as good as ever and Freni seems to enjoy herself unabashedly. Another Swedish tenor, the late lamented Gösta Winbergh, is among the most mellifluous of Ernestos in Tornami a dir, a duet Mirella Freni also recorded with Gedda on the aforementioned duet record.

Mirella Freni was a highly accomplished Mozart singer, sang Zerlina and Susanna at Glyndebourne and Salzburg and recorded both roles with Colin Davis on Philips. Zerlina she also sang at Covent Garden under Georg Solti and a live recording from 1962 was issued not so long ago. A few years later she was also Klemperer’s Zerlina on his monumental recording. We hear both her arias – and few have sung them better. She is also heard in the duet La ci darem la mano, where she is partnered by her second-husband-to-be, the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov. He is a virile but none too subtle Don Giovanni. From her earliest recital (1964) we also get an aria from Le nozze di Figaro; not Susanna’s however, but the Countess’s Dove sono from act III. This recital also included Qui la voce from I puritani and Violetta’s big scene from the first act of La traviata. As Elvira she can’t quite compete with Sutherland or Sills or present day star Natalie Dessay but she is worth hearing anyway. Her Violetta is human and vulnerable but the jubilant final note of Sempre libera reveals that here was already a spinto in the making. From the same recital also comes a fine Depuis le jour from Louise and a delicious Senza mamma from Suor Angelica, the latter curiously squeezed in between extended excerpts from Karajan’s Don Carlo and Aida.

With her husband Magiera she recorded Puccini arias from operas that she hadn’t sung at the time and so far as the stage is concerned never would. Even so, she made complete recordings of Madama Butterfly and Tosca. There was also a Manon Lescaut which she actually did on stage later – and also tackled some real ‘light’ Puccini arias from Gianni Schicchi and La rondine. On this set we also find Liù’s two arias from Turandot. They are from a 1977 recording under Alain Lombard, also starring Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras. They are by far the best things on that recording (see review of highlights disc).

The third recital from the 1960s, conducted by Antonino Votto, included a couple of verismo arias from Adriana Lecouvreur and Mascagni’s Lodoletta; the latter remembered today only through Flammen, perdonami. Mirella Freni invests these with a glow that more than compensates the possible lack of spinto weight. On this recital there were also some French arias. Even though her French wasn’t ever wholly idiomatic she was one of the foremost sopranos in this repertoire. As Micaëla she was exemplary but Leila’s aria from Les Pêcheurs des perles is a lovely performance and Manon’s act II aria is beautifully sung with appropriate frail timbre.

Still in French repertoire we hear her in excerpts from three complete sets. The waltz aria from Roméo et Juliette has a youthful elegance and innocence that gives the essence of Juliet – there are few better. With Franco Corelli as an ardent Romeo in the second act duet O nuit divine there is glow aplenty but also a coarseness of style from the tenor that jars against the slender-limbed music. To hear an idiomatic version we have to go to the duet from Mireille, where Alain Vanzo stands out as the superior French tenor of the period. On the third set, Faust, she was partnered by Placido Domingo, who was in splendid voice. It is a pity that their garden scene couldn’t be included. As it is Marguerite’s Thule-ballad and jewel song are splendid samples, though one misses the heavenly lightness of Victoria de los Angeles.

There remain five late-18th century Italian operas to be assessed. The latest as composition but the earliest as recording is the enchanting recording of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz. This constituted the first collaboration on records with Luciano Pavarotti. The opera may not be an immortal masterpiece but it offers a lot of lovely music and the two Modena-born star singers have rarely been better. (See review of complete set, included in a recent memorial issue of Pavarotti’s complete EMI recordings.) Karajan’s second Otello from 1973 - his first recording from a good decade earlier was on Decca – recently reissued - may be quirkily balanced but besides Mirella Freni’s vulnerable Desdemona we also get to hear arguably the greatest Otello from the last 50 years. A recent correspondent called attention to Ramon Vinay. Many regard the bronze-toned Mario del Monaco as superior. Placido Domingo has dominated the world’s stages for thirty years and recorded it three times plus some pirates and DVDs. I am of the opinion that no one surpasses Giuseppe Giacomini, who unfortunately, to my knowledge at least, never recorded the role complete; at least there are some central solos on a Bongiovanni recital. Anyway, Jon Vickers is so self-exposed and tangibly neurotic even in the first act love duet, which normally is only a preamble to the destructive mental turmoil that follows, that the listener is already clinging firmly to the arm-rests before the aural curtain is down. His way of squeezing the tone isn’t always attractive but he, like Giacomini who also squeezes sometimes, works primarily with soft nuances and understatements, only to overwhelm with fortissimo outbreaks that seem to reveal an untamed wild beast within his human frame. Mirella Freni, without the spinto tones of a Renata Tebaldi, balances this with innocence and frailty.

From Muti’s La forza del destino, we hear three excerpts and in the first of them Placido Domingo, in glorious form impresses greatly as Alvaro. Freni in 1986 is slightly more vibrant than in the earlier recordings, as befits a lirico spinto, but she retains her ability to sings a ravishing pianissimo. In the Karajan-conducted Don Carlo, she sings opposite José Carreras in the duet Io vengo a domandar from act I (Karajan opts for the four act version). He is as involved as ever in the Giuseppe Di Stefano manner, sensitive to nuances, never afraid of scaling down to pianissimo but tending to press too hard in the climactic moments, where his voice is a size too small for the role. Karajan does nothing to make it easier for him. With a recording that at the time was record breaking in wide dynamics, Carreras tends to emerge as second best while Freni’s brighter tones more easily ride the orchestra. Her last act aria  is winning more through the exquisite lyrical singing than for dramatic power and Karajan’s rather expansive tempos also seem to hamper her.

The final opera, and further represented in the last excerpts on CD 4, is Aida, also under Karajan. Here EMI generously bestow 49 minutes of music: from act I O Patria mia; from act III the whole Nile scene, bar the opening orchestral prelude and the priests’ chorus; and from act IV all of the tomb scene. There is a lot of gain in having a mainly lyric soprano for this Ethiopian slave-girl and both arias are exquisitely sung. In the Nile scene she first encounters her father Amonasro in the shape of the formidable Piero Cappuccilli, who may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world but certainly had few if any superiors when it came to singing long Verdian phrases. The father-daughter duet is a chilling experience and when Amonasro has hidden, José Carreras appears as a full-throated and expressive Radamès. His duet with Aida is just as chilling – we know the outcome – but even though we deplore Aida’s treachery to the one who loves her, we admire the way she traps him. Una novella patria is sung with such innocence and bewitching simplicity that not even Domingo could have resisted. The tomb scene is rather scaled down and performed in a kind of resigned gloom. Karajan’s reading has become somewhat slower since he first recorded it for Decca with Tebaldi and Bergonzi twenty years earlier, but not extremely so.

Not following the layout of the CD-set under consideration I may be accused of making even more of a hotch-potch out of it. At least I found, more or less, a structure of my own that made it easier to find connections within the set. Whatever reservations I have had have been rather unimportant in relation to all this excellence. This remains a splendid introduction to the art of Mirella Freni for a younger generation of opera lovers. For all her old admirers it is also a glowing résumé of her achievements during the first 25 years of her career. She was one of the loveliest sopranos during the second half of the last century and at this super-budget price no one can afford not to buy it.

Göran Forsling 

see also Review by Robert Farr

Full Tracklist

CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791)
Don Giovanni
1. La ci darem la mano [3:16]
2. Batti, batti, o bel Masetto [4:44]
3. Vedrai, carino [3:47]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835)
La sonnambula
4. Son geloso del zefiro errante [6:41]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Don Pasquale
5. Quel guardo il cavaliere [2:09]
6. So anch’io la virtù magica [3:58]
7. Signorina, in tanta fretta dove va [2:42]
8. È finita, Don Pasquale [3:05]
9. Via, caro sposino [2:47]
10. Tornami a dir che m’ami [3:29]
L’elisir d’amore
11. Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera [6:06]
12. Eccola … Oh! Quale accresce [1:24]
13. Prendi. Prendi, per me sei libero [3:48]
14. Ebben, tenete. Poiché non sono amato [1:54]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
La bohème
15. Si. Mi chiamano Mimi [4:54]
16. Addio … Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido [3:19]
Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
Mireille
17. La brise esr douce et parfumèe [4:36]
Roméo et Juliette
18. Voyons, nourrice, on m’attend! Parle vite! [1:23]
19. Je veux vivre dans ce rêve [3:36]
20. O nuit divine! Je t’emplore [8:22]
CD 2
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Otello
1. Già nella notte densa [2:48]
2. Quando narravi l’esule tua vita … Ed io vedea le tue tempie … Venga la morte! [8:10]
3. Mia madre aveva una povera ancella … Piangea cantando nell’arma landa [8:29]
4. Ave Maria, piena di grazia [4:57]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Le nozze di Figaro
5. E Susanna non vien! … Dove sono [6:42]
Vincenzo BELLINI
I puritani
6. O rendetemi la speme … Qui la voce … Vien, diletto [7:38]
Giuseppe VERDI
La traviata
7. È strano! … Ah! Fors’è lui … Sempre libera [7:34]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
L’amico Fritz
8. Son pochi fiori! [3:32]
9. Bel cavaliere, che vai per la foresta [2:22]
10. Suzel, buon di [4:11]
11. Non mi resta che il pianto ed il dolore [2:39]
Gaetano DONIZETTI
Lucia di Lammermoor
12. Ah! talor del tuo pensiero … Verranno a te sull’aure I miei sospiri ardenti [5:31]
Francesco CILEA (1856 – 1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur
13. Ecco! Respire appena … Io son l’umile ancella [3:30]
14. Poveri fiori [2:46]
Giacomo PUCCINI
Madama Butterfly
15. Un bel di, vedremo [4:26]
16. Tu, tu piccolo iddio! [2:28]
CD 3
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
Carmen
1. C’est des contrebandiers … Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante [5:56]
Les Pêcheurs des perles
2. Me voilà seule … Comme autrefois [6:28]
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
Manon
3. Allons! Il le faut pour lui-même … Adieu, notre petite table [4:07]
Charles GOUNOD
Faust
4. Je voudrais bien savoir … Il était un roi de Thulé [5:49]
5. Un bouquet! … Ô Diey! Que de bijoux … Ah! Je ris [5:28]
Giuseppe VERDI
La forza del destino
6. Ah, per sempre, o mio bell’angiol … Pronti destrieri … Ah! Seguirti fino agl’ultimi [7:00]
7. Sono giunta! … Grazie, O Dio [1:36]
8. Madre, pietosa Vergine [4:44]
9. Pace, pace, mio Dio [5:09]
Giacomo PUCCINI
Gianni Schicchi
10. O mio babbino caro [2:47]
La rondine
11. Chi il bel sogno di Doretta [2:37]
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860 – 1956)
Louise
12. Depuis le jour [5:55]
Pietro MASCAGNI
Lodoletta
13. Ah! Il suo nome! … Flammen, perdonami! [4:50]
Giacomo PUCCINI
Tosca
14. Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore [3:40]
Manon Lescaut
15. In quelle trine morbide [2:38]
Turandot
16. Signore, ascolta! [2:50]
17. Tu, che di gel sei cinta [5:07]
CD 4

Giuseppe VERDI
Don Carlo
1. Io vengo a domandar [11:24]
2. Tu che le vanità [12:06]
Giacomo PUCCINI
Suor Angelica
3. Senza mamma [5:08]
Giuseppe VERDI
Aida
4. Ritorna vincitor! [6:52]
5. Qui Radamés verrà! [1:50]
6. O Patria mia [6:07]
7. Ciel! Mio padre [1:14]
8. Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate [7:12]
9. Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida [1:28]
10. Nel fiero anelito di nuova guerra [1:46]
11. Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti … La, tra foreste vergini [6:50]
12. Ma dimmi; per qual via [3:21]
13. La fatal pietra sovra me sì chiuse … Immenso Fthà [7:02]
14. O terra addio [5:17]


 


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