From Falstaff (1963) to La Wally and Adriana Lecouvreur (1990), the selections on these CDs encompass 27 years, which is quite a long time for any opera singer. However, Mirella Freni, who turned 70 in February 2005, celebrated by singing the role of Joan in Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans in Washington D.C. – fifty years after her debut in her hometown of Modena as Micaëla! Clearly, this woman is remarkable – another Magda Olivero in terms of durability and consistent excellence.
Most of these selections are taken from her complete recordings for Decca and Deutsche Grammophon. In Bohème, Butterfly, and Tosca, she is partnered by Luciano Pavarotti, who was born less than eight months after Freni, and in the same hometown. (Something in the water?) Another partner worth mentioning is conductor Herbert von Karajan, who encouraged her to take on heavier roles in the 1970s (Aïda, Elisabetta, and so on) with apparently no damage to her voice. The arias from Turandot, Aïda, Ballo, Don Carlo, and Otello are taken from a program she recorded with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli in 1988. This CD has been out of print for several years and is very collectible, so Decca is to be thanked for restoring most of its contents to the active catalogue. All in all, the selections are well chosen. Tatyana's Letter Scene, which closes this CD, is a reminder of Freni's interest in Russian heroines, culminating most recently in Joan of Arc. This interest stems, at least in part, from her marriage to Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, who passed away in 2004. (Her first husband was conductor Leone Magiera, who conducts on some of her earlier recital LPs.)
Yes, Mirella Freni was… is!… a remarkable singer, and this pair of generously-filled discs gives ample testimony to her vocal accomplishments and intelligence. It should be noted, however, that the years 1963-1972 are not represented here. That is because Freni recorded for other labels during this period – EMI Classics, mostly – so those who wish for a more complete portrait of her career may wish to complement this release with a compilation on another label. Earlier in Freni's career she was primarily a lyric soprano, and even sang coloratura roles such as Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani. It was only in the 1970s that she began to pay consistent attention to heavier roles, under the guidance of Karajan and others.
As expected, there are no texts and translations with this release, and recording dates are well hidden, but there is a good essay by George Hall, and fans of Mirella Freni need not hesitate, particularly if they never acquired the very desirable 1988 recital with Sinopoli.
Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle