While googling for something recently the name Mirella Freni popped up on screen. It rang a bell immediately as it recalled Wexford 1962. She was making her festival debut as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani. I was attending my first Wexford production.
Getting there was not without difficulty. A car had to be borrowed. A travelling companion coaxed her mother to lend us her Austin 1100. It came with conditions. We were forbidden to drive on the Dublin/Bray road and our speed should not exceed 40mph. The first was obeyed. The second? Well, maybe not.
With her performance described as “exquisitely smooth, impeccably accurate and unfailingly haunting”, Mirella Freni was a marvellous introduction to Wexford Festival Opera. Directed by Peter Ebert and under Gunnar Stern’s baton it made an indelible impression on me.
Ms Freni was born in Modena on February 27, 1935 just a few months before Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007). Their mothers were working companions while Mirella’s father was a barber and Luciano’s dad a baker. Mr Freni and Mr Pavarotti were childhood friends, shared the same voice teacher for a while and often appeared together on stage.
Singing Puccini’s Un bel di in a competition at the age of 12, one of the adjudicators – acclaimed tenor Beniamino Gigli – cautioned her to “go slowly”. It was advice she followed and later passed on to her own pupils. She initially studied with an uncle, Dante Arcelli, then with Ettore Campogalliani, one of Mr Pavarotti’s tutors, and finally Leone Magiera, whom she later married.
Making her operatic debut as Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen on March 3, 1955 at the Teatro Municipale in Modena, Mirella Freni was an immediate success with public and critics alike. Following a period with the Netherlands Opera, she made her Glyndebourne debut as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1960. Covent Garden came in 1961 with Freni as Nannetta in Verdi’s Falstaff under the renowned conductor Carlo Maria Giulini.
Mimi, a role she kept in her repertoire for 25 years, brought her to La Scala in a production by Herbert von Karajan following which she became one of his favourite singers and through him took on heavier roles including Desdemona (Otello), Elizabeth de Valois (Don Carlos) and Aida.
Ms Freni’s New York Met debut was in 1965, again in La bohème, with one reviewer remarking how she used “voice and gesture to create a Mimi of ravishing femininity and grace. The voice is pure and fresh without seam from bottom to top”. Mirella Freni remained on the Met’s roster for almost 40 years.
Following her divorce from Leone Magiera in 1978, Ms Freni married Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov (1929-2004) and extended her repertoire into Russian opera not least Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana (Eugene Onegin), Lisa (The Queen of Spades) and Joan of Arc (The Maid of Orleans) – the role in which she concluded her long performing career at the Washington National Opera on April 11, 2005.
Mirella Freni died at her home in Modena on February 9, 2020 and, following tributes at the Teatro Communale, her funeral Mass was celebrated in Modena’s metropolitan cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Geminiano.