I have probably written something about that in the old blog, but I have never really understood why most reviewers snob Mirella Freni. I believe that the reason is a reviewer only makes a reputation if he professes to like things not easily likeable. Thus readers are supposed to believe that he has some kind of hidden knowledge that opens him doors to worlds of aesthetic delights forbidden to the ordinary mortals. This can be the only explanation why no famous reviewer writes that Mirella Freni, Christa Ludwig, Plácido Domingo, for example, are really amazing. These singers’ outstanding qualities are so obvious that nobody actually needs to look for a review to understand that.
My first Mirella Freni disc was Karajan’s La Bohème. Back then I had no idea of how to choose a good recording and the whole idea was that Karajan was supposed to be a great conductor and even I knew that Luciano Pavarotti had a beautiful voice. But the great revelation to me was the soprano. This woman did not had a voice that suggested anything like a product of a technique or training of any kind; it basically sounded like a “real” voice. Her phrasing did not sound like “phrasing” – it sounded like the only possible way of voicing an Italian text over a melody. Her interpretation did not sound crafted or intelligent or sophisticated – it actually did not sound like an “interpretation” at all, it sounded like the real thing. And that sound – that was truly something exquisite and feminine and irresistible.
I didn’t need to read any review to get Karajan’s Madama Butterfly and I remember that the high pianissimo d-flat in her entrance seemed like the most beautiful sound I had (have?) ever heard – this note alone says everything you need to know about the character of Cio-cio-san.
I remember I used to say back then “If I ever listen to any recording by Mirella Freni I do not like, it is I who haven’t understood it”. But the truth is I would soon discover I was not the inconditional fan I thought I was – I don’t like any of her Mozart recordings under Colin Davis, in which she is trying too hard to be cute with the kind of unstylish off-pitch effects that I really dislike.
Then there is the problem of her shifting into lirico spinto roles. When she tackles these heavier usages in Puccini, the youthfulness of her voice is always welcome and I can only reckon that the composer himself would be positively surprised by the girlishness she could produce even when close to strain, but the truth is I have never warmed to her Verdi recordings in the roles of Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, Leonora in La Forza del Destino, for example. The voice maintained all right the lovely sheen and feminity, but the tonal variety seemed irreversibly lost and the sense of strain goes again any idea of spontaneity. My last opinion on her had been formed based on recordings from this period, but I have recently found an old broadcast of her Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani (with Pavarotti) and I was again under her spell. In that evening, she was the most perfect singer in the world – such naturalness, such unforced loveliness. In her singing, you don’t see the artist, but the art itself. It is like seeing a painting by Boticelli.
Unfortunately, I saw Freni only once. She had the title role in Giordano’s Fedora at the Met (1997) and Fabio Armiliato was Loris. Dwayne Croft and Ainhoa Arteta were in the cast and I am almost sure Roberto Abbado was the conductor. My expectations were so high and I was pretty convinced I would be disappointed (I can never repress that feeling before I see for the first time in the theatre a singer favourite from recordings) – but the truth is I was truly overwhelmed by her performance.
My first impression was that I found the voice larger and more beautiful live than recorded. Although she is acknowledgedly not a bête de scène, I find the artlessness in her stage presence really convincing. I remember this particular scene in which she had in her hands the letter that accuses her as the responsible for the death of her lover’s brother. She had nothing to sing – she just came downstage holding the letter and staring ahead to the upcoming tragic events fate reserved her. It was truly thrilling!
There was a 30-minute ovation. The other singers refused to join her at curtain calls after 10 minutes. Everybody said it would be her last performances at the Met (I am not sure if she would sing there again after that) and nobody seemed to want to say the final goodbye. I clapped my hands so much and – I didn’t noticed then – that a tiny wound in one finger had opened and I was bleeding (you know, a verismo opera is supposed to awaken melodramatic reactions…). That was really a great evening. Back in Rio, a friend of mine who had seen her many times in Salzburg in Karajan days asked me straight away – So, how was our Mirella? I couldn’t help answering she was still the real thing.