Monday, May 16, 2005

Happy 40th Mirella Freni!

Last night was a very special one at the Metropolitan Opera House. Geoffrey and I attended the Mirella Freni Gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of her Met debut. Here is a treasurable singer who still has something left to give to opera lovers. The voice sounds healthier now than it did nine seasons ago when she sang Fedora at the Met. She has made the necessary technical adjustments to control a then-developing wobble so as to maintain a clear line and legato. With the exception of consistent flatness in the very highest notes, she sounds better than many sopranos twenty years and more younger. An amazing performance.

There really were no bad singers on this special occasion. After James Levine conducted a lively account of the overture from The Bartered Bride, Ms. Freni made her entrance on the arm of Met General Manager, Joseph Volpe. Greeted by a standing ovation, Ms. Freni took a moment to collect herself, then launched into Adieu, notre petite table from Manon. It was immediately apparent that she is not ready for the retirement home yet.

Frederica von Stade then came on to sing Connais-tu le pays? from Mignon. Although her voice has darkened a bit with the years and the vibrato has loosened some, Ms. von Stade still delivered a well-judged and heartfelt performance. She still has that lovely "tear in the voice" quality that has always moved me, her French was impeccable and the phrasing and legato were, as usual with this artist, exemplary.

The remaining guests for the evening were all gentlemen. Salvatore Licitra sang Un di, all'azzurro spazio from Andrea Chénier with impressive verve and forceful presence - one might have expected better legato and more elegant phrasing, but he did much better later in the program where he proved to be a genuinely tender and sensitive partner for Ms. Freni in the first act duet from Adriana Lecouvreur.

James Morris was in fine form in the Prologue from Mefistofele. And the Met Chorus, and particularly the Childrens Chorus, who were luminous and displayed amazing dynamic control, were fine in the choral portions of the Prologue.

Marcello Giordano sounded husky, as if he might be battling a cold (I understand he cancelled at least one Tosca in recent days), but was still impressive in Cielo e mar from La Gioconda. He was able to sing piano when called for (although he did not end the second verse softly, perhaps because he was unnerved by going badly sharp on the note leading into dell'amor and decided it would be wiser not to risk another pianissimo).

The first half of the Gala ended with two selections from Adriana Lecouvreur, the aria Io son l'umile ancella, sung affectingly by Freni, followed by the aforementioned Act One duet with Freni and Licitra.

In the second half of the program, Ms. Freni changed from the lovely red gown she had worn in the first half into a most becoming blue gown. First she sang Prostite vi from Maid of Orleans, an opera which she has made her signature piece of late (the friend we were with had seen her in this role at the Washington National Opera a month ago and liked her very much). This was Ms. Freni's best performance of the night, full of longing and very lovingly sung. It's tessitura ideally suits her current vocal estate - with only one or two high-ish notes, the aria mostly stays in the upper middle of the voice where she still seems most comfortable, in fact amazingly liquid in quality with poised even line. For a woman of seventy, her voice still has a youthful timbre that allows her to convince as the young Maid of Orleans or as Tatiana in Eugen Onegin.

The program ended with the third act of Eugen Onegin (in my opinion always the best act for Freni in this opera - some Tatianas excell in Act One in the Letter Scene, and while Freni's Letter Scene was always beautiful, I treasured more her face to face confrontation with Onegin in Act Three). She was joined by Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and Robert Lloyd as Prince Gremin. All I can say is that Gremin's Aria, always a moving moment for me in this opera, brought a tear to my eyes last night. I have always loved Robert Lloyd, and he did not disappoint, singing with, by turns, tender and ardent love for his young wife. Another singer getting on in years who still has the line, phrasing and legato some singers half his age should envy! Hvorostovsky was an effective Onegin. And Freni? What can one say - she was touching and magnificent. When she really let out to upbraid Onegin, her tone acquired a sheen and brilliance that were amazing without disturbing the musical line.

Ms. Freni came back after a tumultuous ovation, on the arm of Marcello Giordani, and the two of them sang a simple Non ti scordar di me.

After it all, Mr. Volpe came out with all the evening's guests to present Ms. Freni with an autographed photograph of Puccini framed in a piece of the curtain from the Old Met.

All-in-all a memorable evening to be long remembered and treasured.

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