, February 2011
Mirella Freni, born in Modena, Italy, on 27 February 1935, became one of the best-loved sopranos during the second half of the 20th century. She made her stage debut in 1955 at Modena, singing Micaëla in Carmen, a role that was to be one of her signature roles during most of her career. Her final appearance was in April 2005 in Washington, where, aged 70, she sang the role of the teenage Joan of Arc in Tchaikovsky’s Orleanskaya Deva. This box, issued in 2005, is thus a triple celebration of milestones.
The DVD A Life Devoted to Opera was, I understand, produced specifically for these anniversaries and as portrayed in scenes from stage productions, through interviews, extracts from her master-classes and appreciations from friends and colleagues, she stands out as just as nice and lovely as we have already realized in articles and, most of all, on her many superb recordings. I see no need to review that disc but recommend it heartily to all her many admirers.
Mimi in La bohème was another of her great roles, which she recorded commercially twice, first for EMI in the early 1960s opposite Nicolai Gedda (who by the way said in an interview a while ago that Mirella was his favourite soprano) and a decade later for Decca under Herbert von Karajan and opposite Luciano Pavarotti, with whom she grew up. This has, ever since it was new, been regarded as the classic recording of the opera, rubbing shoulders with Sir Thomas Beecham’s EMI recording with Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles. On this DVD from San Francisco 1988 Pavarotti and Freni again join forces, together with Freni’s husband Nicolai Ghiaurov, who also took part in the Karajan recording.
At the time more than fifteen years had passed since the Decca recording but it is remarkable how well preserved the voices are. They were well past fifty and Pavarotti had, during most of the 1980s, been accused of lack of subtlety and striving more for volume and brilliance. The volume is there, the brilliance as well, but we need only hear a few bars of Che gelida manina to realize that here is a singer still in his prime and with a willingness to adjust himself to the role, not adjust the role to himself. The nuances are there, he sings a beautiful pianissimo and though he is impressive at the climax he has no wish to be showy. Tiziano Severini favours rather swift tempos—not in the Toscanini class—but Beecham and Karajan both afford the singers more time to mould the phrases. When Mirella Freni takes over the baton for Mi chiamano Mimi she is as fresh as ever, bar signs of wear on some high-lying notes, but this is negligible when her acting is so enchanting. The love duet is tender and soft—no showing off here. The third act, which for many lovers of this opera is even more touching, goes extremely well too. The blind infatuation of the first meeting has turned into harsh reality and the vulnerability of both characters is tangible. Surely hankies are in hand among the San Francisco audience.
But the real flood of tears comes in the final act, where the two children of Modena surpass themselves. I believe that so tight were their bonds since childhood that they inspired each other to great things when they met on stage.
It goes without saying that the main interest with this issue is focused on Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, but we must not forget the rest of the cast. Sandra Pacetti is a slightly larger than life Musetta—and she should be a more outgoing contrast to the timid Mimi. Gino Quilico is a youthful and hot-tempered Marcello and sings well. Stephen Dickson manages to make Schaunard really interesting, while Ghiaurov has lost some of the bloom in his voice but still sings a noble coat aria. Veteran Italo Tajo is excellent in the double bill of creating Benoit and Alcindoro.
The sets are very traditional which doesn’t bother me. Good lighting, especially at the opening of act IV, where Rembrandt seems to have been the model.
The recording of Fedora was also issued in a similar box with Placido Domingo as the common denominator and readers are referred to my review. Mirella Freni, at the time approaching sixty, was beginning to show signs of ageing but apart from a widening vibrato she is her usual self and the interplay with Domingo is superb, the two having worked together on stage on so many occasions.
I believe that I don’t need very much persuasiveness to convince readers that La bohème with Freni and Pavarotti is a good bait. Maybe Fedora is less enticing. Giordano and Puccini have at least one thing in common: they take some time to warm up before things start to happen. But when all the preparations are done with this is also a captivating opera and Freni and Domingo are no doubt the equals of Freni and Pavarotti. The portrait of Freni on the third DVD is so charming a bonus and the box is favourably priced—so why hesitate?