The beloved Italian soprano Mirella Freni, possessed of a gorgeous lyric instrument and sympathetic stage presence, has died at her home in Modena, Italy, at 84. Announced by her long-time manager Jack Mastroianni, her death was attributed to “a long degenerative illness and a series of strokes.” A childhood friend of Pavarotti’s, Freni was seen by many as the last of a line of legendary Italian sopranos that included Renata Tebaldi, Licia Albanese, Magda Olivero and Luisa Tetrazzini.
Born on February 27, 1935, Freni made her operatic debut at Modena’s Teatro Municipale in 1955 as Micaëla in Carmen. Her early international success began with the 1960 festival season at Glyndebourne, where she sang Zerlina, and continued with her 1961 Covent Garden debut as Nannetta in Falstaff. Freni would return to Glyndebourne the following year for Susanna and Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore.
International stardom came when she appeared as Mimì in a rapturously received La Scala house debut in La Bohème. The consumptive seamstress became a signature part, as did lighter lyric roles like Micaëla, Susanna and Zerlina, and was the occasion for her anticipated 1965 debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Zinka Milanov, then one of the reigning prima donnas of the Met, was reported to have said, “she’s wonderful, this girl, she sounds like a young me.”
Freni would sing on all the world’s leading stages, and with the advice of her close friend and mentor Herbert von Karajan, broadened her repertoire in the 1970s to include heavier roles like Desdemona, Elisabeth of Valois, Aida and Manon Lescaut. Though she chose not to sing a complete performance of Madama Butterfly onstage, it was one of her most acclaimed interpretations – she leaves behind a film adaptation and two recordings.
Married twice, her second husband was the renowned Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov. Their relationship saw Freni branch out into Russian opera, and she appeared as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, Lisa in Pique Dame and, most notably, the title role of The Maid of Orleans, which she sang in 2005 at the age of 70 for Washington National Opera. It was undertaken in the last year of her stage career.
Freni’s long career, spanning five decades, did little to take the bloom off the voice. Indeed, both audiences and critics alike marvelled at her seemingly unchanged instrument, which retained much of the freshness and warmth that enchanted listeners in the early days.
Freni spent her last years teaching, helming her own centre for singing in Modena which she had founded with Ghiaurov.