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Mirella Freni – Soprano Assoluta!
rec. 1959-62
ALTO ALC1233 [72:11]

What is the purpose of this release? Not that a winning, eloquent artist like Mirella Freni doesn't deserve whatever tributes people or record companies wish to assemble. But she recorded most of these roles complete, and those recordings are to be preferred, not least on sonic grounds. There's a measure of distortion here, of the sort associated with "pirated," dal vivo recordings. Right at the start, the brasses before O mio babbino caro break up. The climax of the first Bohème scene is congested, that of Son pochi fiori oversaturated. (The latter is more bothersome on headphones than over speakers.) The clarinet at the start of Micaëla's recitative discolours slightly. Freni's voice, closely captured, also discolours, with a buzzy electronic edge, which makes her high notes sound throaty to boot. It's a trial.

The irony is that most of these aren't dal vivo recordings. The general lack of applause made me suspicious, as did the absence of a tenor where needed, or of a chorus in the Falstaff. The interludes still work fine, but they do go on. Some quick Internet sleuthing revealed that the selections conducted by Ivo Savini, for example, first appeared -- in the U.S., at least -- on a Vanguard Cardinal LP. It's hard to imagine that that disc sounded like this; perhaps the present producers tapped into a second-generation source, or somehow fumbled the remastering. So true opera fanatics -- the kind who collect every available scrap of their idols' performances -- won't actually find much that's new here.

For what it's worth, however, the "new" material makes for rewarding listening. The Capuleti scene sounds a bit better than everything else: the descending string chords have a nice sheen, and the horn solos are firmly registered. The recitative goes in fits and starts, but Freni comes into her own in the aria proper, leaning into the phrases expressively, growing impassioned without violating the scale of the writing. The upward excursions are full-throated, though the topmost notes in the cadenza distort slightly.

We don't reflexively associate this soprano with Baroque music, so it's a pleasure to hear her fresh, youthful timbre in the two Baroque tracks here. In Handel's Va godendo, the runs roll out fluidly, with round tone; the top B flat whoops slightly. The aria from Perti's oratorio San Petronio -- the only item here not drawn from opera -- could just as easily fit into one of Handel's Italian operas, and Freni sings it attractively, though here, again, her voice overloads.

Micaëla's aria in Italian was a surprise, not just linguistically but aesthetically: it sounds more intense in Italian, particularly iun the "B" section. Freni sings it with feeling, though she fusses above the staff. She anticipates both climactic top Gs (at "Vous me donnerez" in the French -- a rewrite for the Italian, perhaps?) and delays the high B, which she doesn't hold long. On the other hand, she interpolates an old-fashioned top B-flat in the shapely final cadence.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed the singer's creamy, expansive legato in O mio babbino caro; her spacious, affecting shaping of Senza mamma; and her feel for the verbal stresses in Donde lieta. The Don Giovanni arias actually were recorded in performance, with applause; Freni gives the dotted rhythms in Vedrai, carino a nice lift, but both numbers make a better impression on the Philips recording under Colin Davis. So does her Susanna in the same conductor's Nozze: here, many of the upward intervals land shy of pitch.

Oddly, the soprano's vaunted guilelessness seems in short supply. She works the opening of Suzel's aria much too hard, applying more expressive intent to the simple statement than it can bear, or needs. (As the lines ascend, she eases up, and the effect is vibrant and spontaneous.) The first of the two Bohème arias keeps stalling, with Freni applying "diva" stretchings as early as “giglio e rose”; the later, farewell aria sounds more natural.

Neither the booklet nor the track listing identifies "Perti" beyond his last name; I've drawn further information from various Internet sources. I also question the grammar of the album's title: although "soprano," in Italian as in English, generally refers to a female singer, the Cambridge Italian Dictionary identifies its gender as masculine.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is Principal Conductor of Lighthouse Opera in New York. (

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Gianni Schicchi: O mio babbino caro (1918) [2:11]*
La Bohème: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì (1896) [5:20]+
La Bohème: Donde lieta uscì (1896) [3:22]+
Suor Angelica: Senza mamma (1918) [4:39]*
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
L'Amico Fritz: Son pochi fiori (1891) [3:30]*
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
La Sonnambula: Ah! Se una volta...Ah! non credea mirarti (1831) [11:16]*
I Capuleti e i Montecchi: Eccomi!...O! quante volte (1830) [10:17]*
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen: Je dis, que rien ne m'épouvante (1874; sung in Italian) [7:07]*
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Falstaff: Sul fil d'un soffio etesio (1893) [4:11]*
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Don Giovanni: Batti, batti (1787) [3:52]#
Don Giovanni: Vedrai, carino (1787) [3:30]#
Le nozze di Figaro: Giunse alfin il momento...Deh! vieni, non tardar (1786) [5:20]^
George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Serse: Va godendo vezzoso e bello (1738) [2:17]§
Giacomo Antonio PERTI (1661-1756)
San Petronio: Quando si belle (1720) [4:24]°
*Bavarian Radio Orchestra/Ivo Savini
+Vienna Volksoper Orchestra/Argeo Quadri
#Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra/John Pritchard
^Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Silvio Varviso
§Orchestra of La Scala, Milan/Piero Bellugi
°Orchestra of Teatro Communale, Bologna/Tito Gotti



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