Mirella Freni is eighty, and to celebrate her birthday La Scala threw open its doors to her fans and opera lovers to see the great soprano once again on the stage that was hers for so many years.
A feisty Freni strode onstage and seemed surprised and visibly moved by the long standing ovation. She was not there to sing, though she says she still has the voice, but with critics Elvio Giudici and Alberto Mattioli she went back through her years at Milan's legendary opera house.
The theatre's new Music Director, Riccardo Chailly, recounted his experiences conducting her, and the Sovrintendente, Alexander Pereira, dropped on his knees before her, before announcing that for the day the theatre would not be La Scala di Milano, but La Freni di Milano. If anyone has earned such a tribute, it is Freni.
She was first hired to sing at the Piccola Scala – a chamber opera house alongside the main stage which no longer exists – in 1962 singing in Handel's Serse, with Luigi Alva, Rolando Panerai and Fiorenza Cossotto.
During the rehearsals, however, she was asked to substitute Renata Scotto as Nanetta in Falstaff, a role she had sung the previous year with Giulini at Covent Garden, and so on 9 January 1962 she made her début in the main house at La Scala, and a week later as Romilda at the Piccola Scala.
The next year Herbert von Karajan was searching for a Mimì for Franco Zeffirelli's new La bohème.
I met him on this stage. He wanted to hear me sing and I followed him into a room with a piano. When he only wanted to hear the last scene I was delighted: he was looking for an artist.
She got the gig!
Two months later she was Micaëla in Carmen with Giulietta Simionato and Mario Del Monaco, and two weeks later she sang Zerlina in Don Giovanni with Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role… she married him in 1981. Still in 1963, she sang Suzel in L'amico Fritz for the season opening on the 7 December under the baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni.
In 1964 she was Adina in L'elisir d'amore with Giuseppe di Stefano and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Pilar Lorengar and Sesto Bruscantini among the cast. In December she was Liù in Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Bruno Prevedi presented in Moscow on the 5 December and with Nilsson and Franco Corelli to open La Scala's season on the 7th.
A few days days later, on the 17 December, Karajan wanted her in La traviata, a production by Zeffirelli which had last featured Maria Callas.
I adored her and she adored me.
But parts of the audience booed, and loudly. There were even punch-ups in the streets outside the theatre after the curtain came down. Of course, the protest was organised, and Freni got the first and last booing of her career.
I knew there were going to be boos, they had already told me. It was decided before I had sung a note. But I sang anyway, and look, here I am! It didn't kill me.
She demonstrated what she (famously) did during that performance. She walked to the front of the stage, put her hands on her hips, and stared at the booers. Only someone extremely sure of their quality would do such a thing.
I thought, ok, if you want to boo… boo. They did their booing, and I got on with singing.
New Year's Eve saw her again on stage as Mimì, a performance received by thunderous applause.
1966 saw her in Jean-Louis Barrault's famous production of Faust, with Georges Prêtre in the pit and the Nicolais Gedda and Ghiaurov by her side. A video showing Freni and Ghiaurov in Faust brought tears to her eyes; he died in 2004.
She was Zerlina in a new Don Giovanni in the same year, again with Ghiaurov, Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna and Lorin Maazel conducting.
After various Fausts and Bohèmes at La Scala in 1967, she made her Scala début as Maria in La figlia del reggimento (yes, in Italian) in 1968; it was the first time that she shared the stage with her childhood friend Luciano Pavarotti. They sang together the following year when they shared the stage for Zeffirelli's Bohème. This was ‘their' opera, and they sang it together all over the world. In 1969 she also sang in Massenet's Manon.
Another prestigious La Scala season opening production was offered to her in 1971; it was a production that would later tour the world and became one of the theatre's most successful productions ever: Simon Boccanegra. The extraordinary Italian director Giorgio Strehler was at the helm, with Claudio Abbado conducting and Ezio Frigerio providing the designs. With Freni on stage were Piero Cappuccilli, Ghiaurov and Gianni Raimondi.
Soon after, in January of 1972, she was seen as Micaëla in a Carmen conducted by Prêtre. Then, after the first time reprising her role in Simon Boccanegra, she returned to Le nozze di Figaro, though this time as the Countess. Otto Schenk's production saw Abbado once again in the pit before her, and she was joined by José van Dam, Hermann Prey and Teresa Berganza.
After more performances during the following seasons of Bohème with Pavarotti and Simon Boccanegra, in 1976 she was once more on stage on the 7 December for yet another legendary production: Zeffirelli's take on Verdi's Otello under the baton of Carlos Kleiber with Plácido Domingo and Piero Cappuccilli. It was the first La Scala opera to be transmitted live. Soon after the Faust was restaged.
For the opening of La Scala's bicentennial season, 1977-78, Abbado chose Don Carlo and he chose Mirella Freni. The five-act version was the vision of Luca Ronconi, who died last week. It was innovative and controversial. Once again Freni was by the side of Ghiaurov, with José Carreras, Elena Obraztsova and Piero Cappuccilli. On 6 January 1978 Abbado conducted the Verdi Requiem in St Mark's Church in Milan, where the work had been first performed in 1874. Freni was joined by Obraztsova, Pavarotti and Ghiaurov. The closure of the bicentennial celebrations was on 7 December 1978 with Strehler's Simon Boccanegra, the only time that an existing production has opened a season at La Scala. In January followed also more performances of Ronconi's Don Carlo, and the Requiem in Cremona and Como. In February on 1979 Freni and Pavarotti sang in Ponnelle's production of L'elisir d'amore with Leo Nucci and Paolo Montarsolo, and in June of the same year Abbado conducted a benefit concert for the Casa Verdi – the musicians rest home in Milan founded by Verdi – when Freni joined Ricciarelli, Cotrubas, Obrastsova, Domingo, Cappuccilli, Luchetti, Foiani, Nesterenko, though an ill Pavarotti was forced to cancel.
Otello was presented again in 1980 and, once again, on 7 December, Freni was in the lineup for the opening night, this time Strehler's acclaimed version of Falstaff with Maazel. Then in 1981 Zeffirelli's Bohème, which is still in the theatre's repertoire, was seen, with Carlos Kleiber and Peter Dvorsky as Rodolfo. That year also saw La Scala in Japan with Simone.
In 1982 Freni sang in revivals of Falstaff with Maazel, Simone with Abbado and Otello with Kleiber. And, yet again, on the 7 December she was in Ronconi's new Ernani with Domingo, Bruson and her new husband, Nicolai Ghiaurov. Muti was on the podium.
Next came an interesting change of path when, in 1986, the 51-year-old Mirella Freni interpreted Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. Seiji Ozawa conducted the cast that included Shicoff and Ghiaurov.
I have a large certificate presented to me in Moscow saying that you can understand my Russian pronunciation better than the Russians. Well they have that way of singing [she demonstrates] which doesn't allow clear diction… [audience laughter] …I say it how it is… I'm from Modena remember!
In '87 she returned with Domingo to their Otello with Kleiber and there were also some performances of Bohème. Then in 1989 came Adriana Lecouvreur in Lamberto Puggelli's new production with Gavazzeni in the pit. Peter Dvorsky and Fiorenza Cossotto were also in the cast. Freni continued to add new repertoire when in 1990 Ozawa conducted her in The Queen of Spades.
Then in 1991, Gavazzeni conducted her in the revivals of Adriana and Bohème; and, again with Gavazzeni and Puggelli, she played Giordano's Fedora in 1993, with both Domingo and José Carreras. So how did this Susanna become a Fedora?
You sing what is right, and never go past your limits. If I can jump three metres, but I try to jump five, I'll break a leg. But your voice isn't here [she indicates her throat], it's here [moving her hand in front of her face].
Her last Bohème at La Scala was with Roberto Alagna in 1994, who carried on with the performances even though he'd just lost his young wife.
On 18 May 1996 she took part in a gala concert to mark the 50th Anniversary of the reconstruction of La Scala after the war. Riccardo Muti also conducted Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz, Luciana D'Intino, Vincenzo La Scola and Samuel Ramey.
Mirella Freni's last performance at La Scala was on 14 June 1996 when she sang in Fedora with Plácido Domingo.
I'm glad to be here again, La Scala is like home to me. But I'm glad to go back to my real home in Modena tonight. My home and my family.
Mirella Freni is happy at 80.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.