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Mirella FRENI (soprano) - Opera Arias and Duets
Various accompanying artists
rec. 1964-1986. ADD; DDD
Detailed track-list at end of review
EMI CLASSICS ICON 206 2532 [4 CDs: 76.43 + 78.32 + 77.30 + 77.57]
Experience Classicsonline


Mirella Freni (b. 1935) made her professional debut at the age of twenty in her native town of Modena as Micaela in Carmen. By one of those quirks of statistics she was born in the same town and in the same year as Luciano Pavarotti. I have seen it both stated and denied that they shared the same wet nurse. In a humorous aside to the suggestion she declared you can tell who got most of the milk! After a break for marriage and childbirth, a spell in the Italian provinces and a season with the Netherlands Opera, she appeared at Glyndebourne in 1960 (Zerlina). Covent Garden followed in 1961, La Scala in 1963 and the Met in 1965 as Mimi. The renowned Karajan-Zeffirelli La Scala production of La Boheme was filmed and is now available on DVD (DG 073 4071). Her Mimi is represented in this collection from her 1964 recording under Schippers (CD 1 trs.15-16). She is light-toned and fresh-voiced, innocent and very believable. Freni recorded the part again under Karajan in 1972 where her voice had developed greater colour and her characterization deepened. Matched by Pavarotti as Rodolfo, it is a truly great recording, being on Decca it could not have been included here (Decca 421 049-2).

In the tracks of Freni’s Zerlina from Don Giovanni in the 1966 issue (CD 1 trs.1-3) her then richer tone loses something of the character’s naivety. Susanna stayed longer in her repertoire, Freni becoming a leading exponent of the role with her secure tone, legato and excellent range of expression all allied to a pleasing stage presence. She appeared as Susanna in Jean Pierre Ponnelle’s Salzburg production conducted by Karajan and at the Palais Garnier under Solti. A 1976 performance as Susanna in the Salzburg production is available on DVD (DG 073 4034). In this collection she makes a light-voiced, somewhat naïve, Countess (CD 2 tr.5). In the mid-1960s she made a number of recital and complete opera recordings for EMI whilst never being signed to a contract with the company and despite Walter Legge asking. Very often these recitals were alongside Nicolai Gedda as the ubiquitous tenor and include rarely heard extracts from La Sonnambula (CD 1 tr.4), Lucia (CD 2 tr.12) as well as a complete L’Elisir d’Amore (CD 1 trs.11-14). Freni never ventured far in the bel canto repertoire although she sang in I Puritani at the Wexford Festival of 1962 and to acclaim in Rome in 1969 (with Pavarotti). An excerpt from a 1965 recital is included here (CD 2 tr.6). If anything perhaps these reveal why EMI, perhaps looking for a Callas replacement, or happy with what they had on tape, did not sign her. Whilst revealing an easy grasp of the music and appealing characterisation, Freni does not have the dramatic bite, or vocal flaws it must be said, of her predecessor.

Freni moved too quickly to Violetta under Karajan. It was a step too far too soon in a fach that was not to be her metier. With both conductor and soprano at sea Anna Moffo was substituted for her after a disastrous first night. Freni returned to the role under Giulini at Covent Garden in 1967 to modest success. Although the role was never one of her calling cards she recorded it in 1973 with Franco Bonisolli as Alfredo and Sesto Bruscantini as Germont under the baton of Lamberto Gardelli, who, like Giulini had the music in his bones. The famous act 1 scene, recorded in 1965 (CD 2 tr.7) exhibits good characterization but not the easy and wholly secure florid coloratura the best interpreters bring to the role. In the year of her Covent Garden Violetta she recorded her first French opera, Roméo et Juliette with Franco Corelli (CD 1 trs 18-20). She is most appealing in her phrasing and characterisation whilst Corelli throws his voice at the role more in the Italian manner than that of a French tenor. The French repertoire was to become a significant part of Freni’s repertoire in the late-1960s and early 1970s. For a period she became the Marguérite of choice in stagings of Faust. The extracts here (CD 3 trs. 4-5) are taken from the 1979 recording where she sang alongside Domingo and her then husband Ghiaurov. I prefer her even, girlish, light-toned interpretations from a 1968 recital under Votto that was included in EMI’s earlier collection: The Very Best of Mirella Freni (see review). A true French tenor is heard with Freni on her recording of Gounod’s Mireille (CD 2 tr.17). More from that 1979 recording could have gainfully been included in this collection. A standard recital item Depuis le jour from 1964 and Manon’s Adieu notre table from three years later (CD 3 trs.12 and 3) are appealing albeit that her French is not perfect.

Despite the La Traviata débacle Freni never lost faith in Karajan and under his guidance and persuasion she gradually moved to heavier roles. He first tempted her into Verdi with the offer of Desdemona in Otello at Salzburg and the associated recording made in 1973. Knowing her own strengths, and keen to preserve them and her career, she asked for a year to prepare - and with the right to refuse at the end! The results are superb. Her Willow Song and Ave Maria (CD 2 trs 1-4) with purity of tone and legato convey outstanding characterization of Desdemona’s uncertainty; frustration and desperation pour out of every bar. It is one of her finest achievements vocally and histrionically. Perhaps emboldened by her achievement Freni sang Maria under Abbado in Strehler’s memorable 1977 production of Simon Boccanegra at La Scala (DG 415 692-2). Karajan tempted her further into the lirico spinto repertoire at Salzburg in 1978 and 1979 singing Elisabetta in Don Carlo (CD 4 trs.1-2) and as the eponymous Aida (CD 4 trs 4-11 and see review)) both featuring Carreras in the tenor parts. Despite the conductor holding the orchestra on a tight rein, both soprano roles demand vocal heft a little beyond Freni’s natural capability. Being blunt, the only really true Verdi singing in both those recordings comes from Piero Cappuccilli as Rodrigo and Amonasro respectively even though Freni’s capacity with a Verdian phrase is appealing. Perhaps unwisely, Freni was tempted to sing Leonora in La Forza del Destino for Muti at La Scala in 1986 where her lack of sheer vocal strength is exposed; her phrasing became choppy and abbreviated and the legato line broken (CD 3 trs.6-9).

Early in her career, Freni’s concern in respect of appropriate repertoire was evident in her attitude to Puccini roles. Despite La Boheme being her calling card, she was firm in refusing countless appeals to perform Butterfly on stage. She considered it far too heavy for her and never performed the role on stage; likewise with the eponymous roles in the composer’s Manon Lescaut and Tosca. She did record arias from all three in the mid-1960s (CD 2 trs.15-16), (CD 3 tr.15) and (CD 3 tr.14). All are vocally appealing without having any particular dramatic distinction. More appropriate to her, and far more expressive in characterisation, are her renderings of O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi and Chi il bel sogno di Doretta from La Rondine recorded in 1966. Also worthy of her skill is Liu’s Signore ascolta and Tu, che di gel sei cinta from the 1977 complete recording of Turandot with Caballé and Carreras inappropriately cast in the title role and Calaf respectively (CD 3 Trs.16-17). Freni did make studio recordings of Manon, Tosca and Butterfly for DG and Decca, the latter with Karajan and alongside Pavarotti as Pinkerton (Decca 417 577-2). The only recording the two made together for EMI was Mascagni’s lightweight L’amico Fritz (CD 2 trs.8-11). The Modenese pair, both in good lyric voice, make the trifle more appealing than it might otherwise be..

As Hugh Canning notes in his informative and concise introductory essay, in the last stage of her career Freni did take on some verismo roles: Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur and Giordano’s Fedora. He also learnt the three Russian parts of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, Joan of Arc from the Maid of Orleans and The Queen of Spades, all under the tutelage of her then husband Nicolai Ghiaurov. At the fiftieth anniversary of her debut at the Met she sang the final scene from Onegin. Regrettably, her husband died shortly before he could essay Gremin alongside her. Freni’s awareness of her vocal limitations greatly helped her long and illustrious career on record and in the opera house. Decca, for whom she also recorded extensively, have also issued collections of her singing although none seem currently available.

Canning refers to an interview with Freni on her 75th birthday. In fact, at the time of writing (2008), Freni born in 1935, has not yet reached that milestone. The essay is reproduced in German and French translation. Most recording details are given except in respect of some of the 1966 and 1967 recital recordings making me worry about record-keeping at EMI. The La Sonnambula, Lucia and Lodoletta recordings are newly digitally remastered and I believe appear on CD for the first time. Worryingly, for the 1969 recording of Mireille no venue is given with producer and engineer marked as unknown. I know EMI was a big player with devolved decision-making to the German and French branches. However a look at the last marketing material for the complete opera, and albeit I had to get mine from America, would reveal the venue as the Halle-aux–Grains, Toulouse, with Eric Macleod in charge and Serge Rémy the engineer. The varying venues and their individual acoustics are clearly defined with, thankfully, no attempt at disguising them.

The four CDs are in cardboard slip-cases contained in a rugged fold-over box faced with a photo of the young Freni as Mimi.

Robert J Farr

Detailed track-list
CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Don Giovanni,

Act 1. La ci darem la mano…Batti, batti o bel Masetto

Act 2. Vedrai carino

With Nicolai Ghiaurov

New Philharmonia Orchestra/Otto Klemperer

rec. June 1966. No 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London [11.44]

Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
Bellini: La sonnambula, Act 1 – Son geloso del zefiro errante
with Nicolai Gedda
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Edward Downes
rec. February/June/July/August, 1966, location not known. [6.41]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Don Pasquale,
Act 1. Quel guardo il cavaliere ... So anch'io la virtù magica
Act 3. Signorina, in tanta fretta dove va ... È finita, Don Pasquale… Via, caro sposino... Tornami a dir che m'ami
With Sesto Bruscantini, Gösta Winbergh
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. June-July 1982, Kingsway Hall, London [18.18]
L'elisir d'amore,
Act 1. Chiedi all'aura lusinghiera
Act 2. Eccola ... Oh! quale accresce ...
Act 2. Prendi. Prendi, per me sei libero… Ebben, tenete. Poiché non sono amato
with Nicolai Gedda, Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera, Roma/Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
rec. August, 1966, Opera House, Rome [13.14]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
La bohème,

Act 1. Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì
Act 3. Addio ... Donde lieta uscì al to grido
with Nicolai Gedda, Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera di Roma/Thomas Schippers [8.16]
Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Mirielle, Act 2. La brise et douce et parfumée
with Alain Vanzo, Chœur & Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse/Michel Plasson
rec. November 1979 (no venue given) [4.36]
Roméo et Juliette,
Act 1. Voyens, nourice, on m'attend! parle vite! ... Je veux vivre dans ce rêve
Act 2. O nuit divine! je t'emplore
with Michèle Vilma; Franco Corelli
Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris/Alain Lombard
rec. June/July 1968, Salle Wagram, Paris [13.26]

CD 2 [77.32]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Otello, Act 1. Già nella notte densa ... Quando narravi l'esule tua vita ... Ed io vedea le tue tempie ... Venga la morte!
Act 4. Mia madre aveva una povera ancella ... Piangea cantando nell'arma landa…Ave Maria, piena grazia
with Jon Vickers; Stefania Malagu. Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. April 1973, Philharmonie, Berlin [24.30]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Le nozze di Figaro, Act 3. E Susanna non vien! ... Dove sono [6.42]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
I puritani, Act 2. O rendetemi la speme ... Qui la voce ... Vien, diletto [7.38]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La Traviata, Act 1. E strano! ... Ah! fors'è lui ... Sempre libera [7.34]
Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera, Roma/Franco Ferraris
rec. August, 1964, Teatro dell'Opera, Rome
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
L'Amico Fritz, Act 1 – Son pochi fiori!
Act 2. Bel cavaliere, che vai per la foresta ... Suzel, buon dì ...
Act 3. Non mi resta che il pianto ed il dolore
with Luciano Pavarotti, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
rec. August-September, 1968, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London [12.52]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor, Act 1. Ah! talor del tuo pensiero ... Verrano a te sull'aure i miei sospiri ardenti
with Nicolai Gedda, New Philharmonia Orchestra/Edward Downes
rec. February/June/July/August, 1966, location not known [5.31]
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur, Act 1 – Ecco! respiro appena ... Io son l'umile ancella
Act 4. Poveri fiori
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Antonino Votto
rec. June, 1967, Basilica, Milan [6.19]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Madama Butterfly, Act 2. Un bel di, vedremo…. Tu, tu piccolo iddio!
Orchestra della Radiotelevisione Italiano, Milano/Leone Magiera
rec. January, 1966, Basilica, Milan [6.58]

CD 3 [76.19]
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)

Carmen, Act 3. C’est des contrebandiers…Je dis que rien [5.56]

Les pêcheurs des perles, Act. 2. Me voilà seule…Comme autrefois [6.26]

Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Manon, Act 2. Allons! il le faut pour lui-même ... Adieu notre petite table [4.07]
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Antonino Votto
rec. July, 1967, Basilica, Milan
Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)
Faust, Act 3. Je voudrais bien savoir ... Il était un roi de Thulé...
Act 3. Un bouquet ! ... O Dieu! que de bijoux ... Ah! Je ris
Paris Opéra Orchestra/Georges Prêtre
rec. 19-29 June 1978, Salle Wagram, Paris [11.17]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
La forza del destino, Act 1 – Ah, per sempre, o mio bell'angiol ... Pronti destrieri ... Ah! seguirti fino agl'ultimi
Act 2. Sono giunta! ... Grazie, o Dio… Madre, pietosa Vergine
Act 4. Pace, pace, mio Dio
with Placido Domingo, Francesca Garbi, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Riccardo Muti
rec. 6-15 July 1986, Milan [18.35]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Gianni Schicchi, O mio babbino caro [2.47]
Orchestra della Radiotelevisione Italiano, Milano/Leone Magiera
rec. 11-12 January 1966, Basilica, Milan
La Rondine, Act 1. Chi il bel sogno di Doretta [2.37]
Orchestra della Radiotelevisione Italiano, Milano/Leone Magiera
rec. 10 June 1966, Basilica, Milan
Gustave CHARPENTIER (1860-1956)
Louise, Act 3. Depuis le jour [5.55]
Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera, Roma/Franco Ferraris
rec. 7 June 1964, Teatro dell'Opera, Rome
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Lodoletta, Act 3. Ah! il suo nome! ... Flammen, perdonami! [4.50]
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, Milano/Antonino Votto
rec. 6-7, 12, 14 June 1967, Italy
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Tosca, Act 2. Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore [3.40]
Manon Lescaut, Act 2 – In quelle trine morbide [2.38]
with Orchestra della Radiotelevisione Italiano, Milano/Leone Magiera
rec. 11-12 January 1966, Basilica, Milan
Turandot, Act 1 – Signore, ascolta [2.50]
Act 3. Tu, che di gel sei cinta [5.07]
with José Carreras, Paul Plishka, Vicente Sardinero Maîtrise de la Cathédrale, Chœurs de l'Opéra du Rhin Orchestra Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Alain Lombard
rec. August, 1977, Palais de la Musique, Strasbourg

CD 4
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Don Carlo,

Act 1Io vengo a domandar
Act 4Tu che le vanità
with José Carreras [15] Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. Sept.1978, Philharmonie, Berlin. [23.35]
Act 1, Ritorna vincitor!
Act 3, Qui Radamés verrà! ... O Patria mia… Ciel! mio padre… Riverdrai le foreste imbalsamate… Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida… Nel fiero anelito di nuova Guerra.. Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti ... La, tra foreste vergini… Ma dimmi; per qul via
Act 4, La fatal pietra sovra me sì chuise ... Immensa Ftha…– O terra addio
With José Carreras and other cast members, Wiener Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
rec. May, 1979, Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. [49.07]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Puccini: Suor Angelica – Senza mamma
with Orchestra del Teatro dell'Opera, Roma/Franco Ferraris
rec. 8 August, 1964, Teatro dell'Opera, Roma



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