Giuseppe Verdi


A weekly Quixotic pursuit for appreciators of opera who don't expect too much, would-be appreciators of opera who don't know what to expect, and those somewhere in-between,
such as your host.

Thrown together in haste every
Saturdee morning by
Rip Rense

Giacomo Puccini

Tribute to the late Mirella Freni

Mirella Freni, 1970

Alan Rich, in the New York Herald Tribune, wrote of Mirella Freni’s 1964 debut in “La Boheme:” “Miss Freni is — well, ‘irresistible’ — will do for a start. Beautiful to look at, and actress of simple naturalness and overwhelming intelligence, she used voice and gesture to create a Mimì of ravishing femininity and grace. The voice itself is pure and fresh, operating without seam from bottom to top, marvelously colored at every point by what seems to be an instinctive response to the urging of the text. There was talk during intermission of a ‘young [Licia] Albanese,’ a young this and a young that. Forget it; the important thing is that she is a young Mirella Freni, a standard unto herself and an artist of the highest qualities … The last act eclipsed in musicianship anything, all that had gone on before. Miss Freni spun out a small silvery thread of tone at the end until you felt, rather than heard, the intensity of it all … The audience all but tore the house down and may be at it still.”

Saturdee Opry Links Overture
"La Forza del Destino," by Verdi.


Mirella Freni, who died last week at 84, was born in Modena, Italy, on February 27, 1935, a few months before her lifelong friend and colleague Luciano Pavarotti. They were famously nourished by the same wet nurse, and Mirella liked to remark, “You can see who got all the milk!” Madama Freni eventually sang and recorded with Pavarotti many times, most popularly in Puccini's "La Boheme." Here they are with the duet, "O Soave Fanciulla," from "Boheme," in a 1964 concert appearance. "O, beautiful girl in the moonlight. . ."

To say the opera world is full of egomania is like saying L.A. traffic is a little annoying. Yet it is surprising how many opera singers are very down to earth, unpretentious---and no one was more so than the late Mirella Freni. Paul Driscoll in Opera News put it this way: "Freni was a level-headed, unpretentious woman who seemed singularly unaffected by her extraordinary acclaim. In a career of fifty years, she conquered audiences, colleagues and critics but had no enemies; her sovereign charm, directness and sincerity made everyone rejoice in her success." No enemies! An amazing enough claim under any circumstances, but in the ultra-competitive context of opera, extraordinary. At first a light, lyric soprano, Freni debuted in "Carmen" in her home town in 1955, singing "Micaela's aria," also known as "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" ("I say nothing can frighten me.") Here she is, singing it in 1967, when her voice was a bit larger.
Setting: A mountain pass
Synopsis: Searching for Don José, who she still loves in spite of the smugglers, Micaëla finds herself alone in the mountains. Frightened, she prays for courage.

When I was about nine years old, I was alarmed by the sound of people screaming in my living room. Loudly. I left my room to investigate, and found my old man well into a pint of Early Times Kentucky Bourbon. ("Early Times---for when it's too late," as I am fond of saying.) And the screaming people were coming out of our large-for-its-time stereo (my old man's big splurge.) What in hell, I wondered, was going on? "Siddown, boy!" said Pop, "Listen to Boo-genie!" (I later figured out that this was something called "Puccini," which I figured was a style of music.) And he proceeded to narrate---in an enthusiastic shout, to compete with the stereo volume (about 7 out of ten)---the opera, "La Boheme." Truth be told (and it seldom is), I couldn't begin to make out any music or melody---I just heard one guy really yelling his head off. (This was the aria, "Che Gelida Manina.") But then things changed, and a woman began to sing. Although I was still confused by it all, I could not help but being moved in some way. The woman sang so delicately, sweetly, sadly, and the orchestra did weird, magical things with flutes that made my eyes wide. This was the first time I ever heard Mirella Freni. She was singing what would be her lifelong signature role of Mimi, explaining that she was just a humble seamstress, but that when spring came, she filled with feelings of life and love. Here is Ms. Freni, from 1965, in the wonderful Zeffirelli production of "Boheme," singing this same aria, "Mi Chiamano Mimi" ("My name is Mimi.") With English subtitles. Thanks, Pop.
Setting: Christmas Eve in a room in an attic occupied by the poet, Rodolfo, in Paris.
Synopsis: Rodolfo introduces himself to Mimi in the aria, "Che Gelida Manina," then asks her to tell him about herself.

Though Pavarotti and Freni were known chiefly for singing "Boheme" together, they did a number of other operas, including Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" (recording only) and Verdi's "La Traviata." Here are the great friends in the lilting duet, "Parigi O Cara," ("We'll leave Paris, my dearest.") This, of course, is a heartbreaking scene, as both Alfredo (Pavarotti) and Violetta (Freni) know that Violetta is dying of tuberculosis. After having been separated by Alfredo's father, the two lovers are finally reunited just before Violetta's death, yet they courageously summon enough bravado to sing of their future---how they will leave Paris to find happiness together at last. This really sounds as if they were born to sing together. Live on stage in 1980.

Saturdee Opry Links extra:
Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti laugh it up during rehearsal. Wild guess: she finds his shaky falsetto amusing?

One of the late Mirella Freni's early successes, before her great breakthrough in "Boheme," was as Nanetta in Verdi's "Falstaff" in 1961 at Covent Garden (also staged by Zeffirelli, who would do the "Boheme" that immortalized Freni as Mimi a couple years later.) And here is an aria from that very 1961 performance, the enchanting "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" ("On the breath of an etesian breeze.") Who can listen to the way she spins delicate high notes at the end, and not be moved their beauty?
Setting: Windsor Park, Windsor, England, early 15th century
Synopsis: Nannetta, disguised as the Fairy Queen, calls the fairies out of their hiding places and commands them to dance. (Are you paying attention, Bonnie Tone?)

Saturdee Opry Links Extra:
Fred Plotkin's great piece about Freni, including a wonderful video interview with her (that was likely the last time she sang in public.)

Another of Freni's great establishing roles came in 1962 at Glydebourne Opera, in a production of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." Here, one gets a taste of her lyric coloratura, with the poignant, gently couched aria, "Deh Viene non Tardar." (Oh, come, don't let me be late.") This is that kind of seemingly understated, simple melodiousness that belies Mozart's musical sophistication. In other words, this is a lot more complex than it sounds, and well beyond my ability to describe. Freni's singing must be perfection.
Setting: The garden of Count Almaviva
Synopsis: In order to tease Figaro, who thinks Susanna is cheating on him with the Count, Susanna urges the Count to come quickly to her.
And if you think this aria is just a simple tune, take a quick gander at this:

Freni sang what she thought she was capable of singing, and turned down---turned down!---many lucrative offers of major roles because she felt her voice was not right for them. In short, she wanted only to serve the music. She never sang Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" on stage, for some reason (presumably that she did not feel ready for it), but did (thank goodness) record it on record and film (the latter with Placido Domingo.) Here she is with gripping version of "Un bel di Vedremo," ("One fine day, we will see. . .").
Setting: Butterfly's house
Synopsis: Three years have passed since Butterfly's American husband left her. Her servant Suzuki, tries to convince her that he isn't coming back, but Butterfly is convinced that he will. She sings of the day that he will return. She dreams of him sailing into the harbor and climbing up the hill to meet her.
Placido Domingo who was, like Pavarotti, a recurring partner of Mirella Freni, wrote on his Facebook page:
“My dear Mirella, my heart is broken. How many emotions we experienced together! I think back to our many performances, to the Butterfly film, to the shared laughs, to the magic of your voice and to your unsurpassable musicality. I had the honor of rubbing shoulders with you professionally and of being a friend in life. Goodbye dear Mirella. You will always be with us. Your star will always shine in the firmament of music and of our hearts. "

The endless proclamations of "the greatest" this or that, in any field, are silly, of course. There are so many "greatests," and they all have their unique characteristics. The same is true in sports, acting, the sciences, art, literature, music---especially in opera. Perhaps there are exceptions---one can proclaim Pavarotti the greatest tenor and get little argument---but, as I said, there are many different kinds of greatness. Paul Driscoll in Opera News summed up Freni’s greatness accurately: "One of the truly singers of her generation, an artist who honored the lyric soprano repertory with standard-setting performances in nearly every role she sang." The estimable opera writer Fred Plotkin said this: "It is fair to say that she was one of the most beloved opera singers of her time. This love was not just for her beautiful voice, superb artistry and adorable stage presence, but also for the evident connection that her heart made with her characters and their music." Here is beloved Ms. Freni, later in her career, at age 56(!) with an aria that really sums up her humility. "Io son l'umile ancella," from Adriana Lecouvreur, by Cilea. ("I'm but the humble servant.")
Synopsis: Adriana Lecouvreur, the star of the Comédie-Française, Paris, backstage 1730. The Prince de Boullion and the Abbe de Chazeuil meet the company at the Comédie-Française before the show. Although the Prince is the patron of Adriana's main competition as an actress, Duclos, he compliments Adriana. She replies to the compliments by saying that she is only the vessel through which the muses work.


Freni married twice. Her first husband, conductor Leone Magiera, posted this message on her passing:
“Mirella Freni, one of the most important sopranos of the 20th century, died a few hours ago. She was my wife for over twenty years and together we raised our daughter Micaela. At this moment of great sadness, I remember the many shared years, full of hope and study. And I remember the time spent with Herbert von Karajan, the most significant and exciting experience of our common artistic life. Even if we were already separated, Mirella agreed to write the preface to my book on Karajan and I thank her for what will remain her last testimony of these magnificent moments. I will never forget the great and precocious talent of Mirella, who we have forged together since her 14 years, and who has led her to achieve great artistic achievements all over the world. Ciao Mirella."
Her second husband from 1978 until his passing was the tremendous Russian baritone, Nicolai Ghiaurov---from whom Ms. Freni learned Russian, and sang in several Russian operas. In 2002, when she was 67, she and Ghiaurov performed a concert in Moscow. I direct your attention to 56:30 in the full concert, in which they sing the duet, "La Ci Darem La Mano," (yes, you know this melody!) from Mozart's "Don Giovanni"---which they recorded together in 1966!
And here is the '66 recording:
Synopsis : Don Giovanni attempts to seduce the peasant girl Zerlina. Zerlina almost capitulates but is prevented from going off with him by Donna Elvira, who has already fallen to the wiles of Giovanni.

Saturdee Opry Links Mirella Freni Tribute. . .
When Freni was asked to sing Mimì in "La Bohème"---while in her sixties!---she said, “I am old enough to be her grandmother!” Yet her voice was still young enough to sing the role. In this heartbreaking, tender scene, Mimi and Rodolfo (sung by her great lifelong friend, Pavarotti) agree to say goodbye (though they later revise the decision, and vow to stay together until spring.) The truth that Rodolfo can't reveal is that he knows Mimi is terminally ill, and simply can't stand to witness her decline. Mimi here sings "Donde lieta usci," roughly "When happy leaving. . .", an aria that finishes with a line that perhaps also serves well as Freni's own farewell: "Addio, senza rancor," or "Goodbye, without regret." Goodbye, dear Ms. Freni. Your voice lives on.


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