Mirella Freni (real name Fregni) was born into a musical family: her aunt, Valentina Bartolomasi, was a well-known soprano during the 1920s, and her uncle first spotted her vocal talent as she sang along to a recording of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. At just ten years old Freni sang in a children’s concert and two years later won a competition for young singers. One of the judges however, the tenor Beniamino Gigli, advised her not to perform until her voice was fully developed and she subsequently studied singing with the distinguished teacher Ettore Campogalliani at Mantua while attending opera performances at Modena’s Teatro Communale. Here Freni made her very successful operatic stage debut as Micaëla / Carmen at the beginning of 1955; but rather than immediately pursuing an operatic career, she married the coach and conductor Leone Magiera, giving birth to their daughter Micaela in 1956. With the encouragement of her husband she did however return to performing, in 1958 winning first prize in the prestigious Viotti Competition in Vercelli.
Immediately, Freni was invited to sing at the opera houses of Palermo, Bologna, Naples and Rome, and appeared with the Netherlands Opera in 1959. Her breakthrough occurred in 1960 when she sang Zerlina / Don Giovanni at the Glyndebourne Festival. The following year, as well as returning to Glyndebourne, she appeared at short notice as Nanetta in a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff, directed by Zeffirelli and conducted by Giulini, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 1962 she enjoyed great success once again at Glyndebourne as both Adina / L’elisir d’amore and Susanna / Le nozze di Figaro, of which the critic Andrew Porter wrote: ‘Everything she did, vocal and dramatic, was alive, credible, and unforced.’
Freni’s debut at La Scala, Milan was in January 1962 as Nanetta, followed by Liù / Turandot. Through her work in Milan she came to the attention of Herbert von Karajan, who significantly helped the development of her career. With Karajan conducting she sang Mimì at the start of 1963 in a new production of La Bohème at La Scala, again directed by Zeffirelli. This proved to be a huge success, with Mimì becoming a key role for Freni: in 1964 she recorded the part for EMI and in 1965 the La Scala production was filmed. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York by opening the 1965–1966 season as Mimì, and during the next three seasons at the Met she sang Marguerite / Faust, Liù, Micaëla, Susanna and Juliette / Romèo et Juliette.
In Europe Freni first appeared at the Vienna State Opera in 1963 and sang there regularly until 1992. Her debut at the Salzburg Festival came in 1966 and in 1970 she scored another major success as Desdemona / Otello, which she later sang in the centenary production of 1987 at La Scala, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Subsequent dramatic roles at Salzburg with Karajan included Elisabetta / Don Carlo (1975) and the title part in Aida (1979). Freni’s move into the dramatic soprano repertoire had been anticipated in 1967 by a fine Violetta / La traviata at Covent Garden, conducted by Giulini and directed by Luchino Visconti, and was later confirmed by rounded portrayals of Amelia / Simon Boccanegra, Elvira / Ernani and Leonora / La forza del destino at Milan and elsewhere. In 1976 she returned to America, touring with the companies of La Scala and the Paris Opera and later appearing with companies in Chicago, Houston and San Francisco, as well as with the Met between 1983 and 1997.
Following her second marriage, to the bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, Freni further expanded her repertoire to include Tatyana / Eugene Onegin (which she first sang in Chicago in 1985) and Lisa / The Queen of Spades, as well as major roles from the verismo repertoire including the title parts in Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora, Madama Butterfly, Madame Sans-Gêne and Manon Lescaut. When not fulfilling operatic stage commitments across both Europe and America, she was very active in the recording studio, making numerous complete opera recordings.
After Ghiaurov’s death in 2004, Freni gave her final operatic performances in 2005 as Joan of Arc / The Maid of Orleans in Washington DC, followed by a gala at the Metropolitan Opera to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of her operatic debut and the fortieth anniversary of her debut at the Met. She remains active as a teacher. As an operatic star of the first magnitude, Freni combined an exceptionally warm and natural voice with a most appealing stage presence, as the many sound and video recordings of her performances fully testify.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).