Mirella Freni is one of the great sopranos of the 20th century. Born on Feb. 27, 1935, she conquered opera hearts with her refined soprano and luscious phrasing. There simply aren’t many with as glorious a sound as she produced in her best years.
Freni is noted for being a cautious singer, straddling repertoire that often seemed a tad heavy for her. Yet she was always very cautious with what she took on, famously stating that she never fully performed her iconic “Madama Butterfly” onstage because she knew it was not a great move for her voice.
And while she often played it “safe” in her assignments, she didn’t do so with her repertoire, venturing into places one might not expect. Here are four operas that Freni took on that you might not expect.
The Handel opera is hardly a “rare opera,” but in the context of Freni, a bel canto and verismo artist, it most certainly is. She did her share of Mozart, but not baroque. The soprano famously appeared in the legendary recording that featured Joan Sutherland in the title role alongside Tereza Berganza. Freni took on the role of Morgana in the opera.
This is one of Freni’s iconic roles, the soprano one of the few to take on the verismo work and perform it regularly. The Met revived the opera for the first time in 70 years in a production that starred the soprano and Plácido Domingo. She sang it nine times that season. The opera has not returned since. That’s how potent her importance to this work has been in recent years.
As was the case with “Fedora,” the soprano championed this rare work by Giordano in 1997 under Bruno Bartoletti in Catania. There is also a recording under Stefan Razani available through Dynamic.
Maid of Orleans
At the end of her career, Freni turned to the Russian repertoire performing iconic portrayals of Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin” and Lisa in “The Queen of Spades.” But she also turned to this rare Tchaikovsky work at the very end of her career. In fact, she ended her illustrious operatic journey in this opera at the Washington National Opera on April 11, 2005. The character of Ioanna is presented as 17 in the work. Freni was 70.