Robert J Farr
, September 2011
Mirella Freni (b. 1935) made her professional debut as Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen at the young age of twenty on 2 February 1955 in her native town of Modena, Italy. By one of those quirks of statistical fate 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 a fact she confirms in this film (Ch.2). That said, she does not repeat the statement earlier attributed to her that you can tell who got most of the milk!
The film opens with a black and white clip of her singing Mimi from La Bohème. The part became her signature role which she sang all over the world. Memorably she made a recording of it alongside her erstwhile wet nurse companion for Decca under Karajan (Decca 421 049-2) who became one of her favourite conductors. We get to see a clip of Freni and Pavarotti singing La Bohème together in their hometown in 1967 when the audience clap at her entrance (Ch.3). There’s another from twenty-one years later from the San Francisco Opera (Ch.4). Before this, in a mixture of narrative and excerpt, Freni, looking chubbier of face than of old, talks about driving from home in Modena to Mantua for lessons from teacher, Ettore Campogalliani who was a great influence on her for much of her career.
After a gap for motherhood she built her career via the Italian provinces, Amsterdam, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden before her debut, aged twenty-seven, at short notice, at La Scala as Nannetta (Ch.4). Her main debut at La Scala was as Mimi in a filmed Zeffirelli production under Karajan; it’s now available on DVD, singly (DG 073 4071) or as one of a trio of Puccini operas (DG 00440 073 4417 GH). Karajan’s brief contribution (Ch.8) has some still photographs of her as Aida. The major contribution to the brief survey of her stage career comes from Domingo with whom she sang, he suggests, more than any other tenor (Ch.7). It includes a brief clip from the live performances of Verdi’s Ernani at La Scala in 1982. It was a production she shared with her second husband the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov (1929-2004) as Silva. She talks about their thirty-five years together and how he coached her in Russian for Rachmaninov’s Still Waters. This coaching held her in good stead for her late assumptions in Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades and The Maid of Orleans.
Freni’s meeting with Callas and the debacle of her La Scala performances as Violetta are not skimped (Ch.6). Although no mention is made of the success she had in the role later at Covent Garden, extracts from the film she later made in that role, despite lip sync problems, are appealing. A sound version is reviewed elsewhere. The memorable evening Freni partnered Domingo in the first ever live transmission from La Scala’s opening night with her singing Desdemona to his Otello is a delight. I would love to see more of this. The tapes must exist somewhere as must those of succeeding opening nights such as that featuring Caballé as Norma.
Particularly interesting to the lover of singing is Mirella in the recording studio assaying Core n’grato, her keen ear and professionalism clearly to be seen and heard (Ch.9). Also not to be lost sight of is her current work in supporting and giving master classes in the Modena conservatoire—established in what was the maternity home where she was born. In an extended interview, filmed in the Teatro Comunale in Modena, she speaks about her extraordinary career and the constant touring demands (ch.10). She recounts eating spaghetti before every performance; she now cannot stand it in the house!
Among the many eulogistic interviews, those with Domingo and the director Pugelli are the most interesting. They afford an insight into an outstanding lyric soprano who never played the diva yet maintained the highest professional standards for fifty years.