Operatic soprano

Born: February 27, 1935;

Died: February 9, 2020.

MIRELLA Freni, who has died aged 84, was one of the great lyric sopranos of her era. She sang roles in Mozart, Verdi and Puccini with consummate skill, making such characters as Susanna, in The Marriage of Figaro, Mimi, in La Boheme, and Desdemona, in Otello, come alive through her total artistry and vocal technique.

Freni was born in Modena, Italy, and was a childhood friend and neighbour of Luciano Pavarotti - their mothers both worked in the same cigarette factory and the two future stars shared the same wet-nurse. “You can see which one of us got the more milk”, Freni joked. They would go on to sing in opera houses together and many of their recordings are now classics. Pavarotti called Freni “a colossal, beautiful artist and person”.

In Scotland, Freni is remembered for the famous Carmen at the Edinburgh Festival in 1977. The cast was of international standard, with the title role sung by Teresa Berganza and Don Jose by Placido Domingo. Freni was Michaela and the London Symphony Orchestra, under Claudio Abbado, fitted into the pit of the King’s Theatre. The new Scottish Opera chorus and Edinburgh schoolboy choristers excelled. The production was a landmark in the history of the festival and it greatly enhanced its international standing. It was rightly hailed as the “Carmen of the century”.

The production, however, was not without its problems. It was very expensive and until BP made a substantial donation there was much doubt about the wisdom of mounting such a high-profile staging. Berganza and Abbado lowered their fees, Freni offered to make a substantial reduction as “a present to my friend, Teresa".

When the Edinburgh rehearsals began it transpired that Freni was double-booked and was due to appear at the Salzburg Festival. To everyone’s surprise the normally autocratic Herbert von Karajan changed the date of a performance which allowed Freni to perform at the general rehearsal and then only at the first night. It proved to be her only appearance in Scotland.

Freni’s international breakthrough had come in 1961 when she sang an enchanting Zerlina in Don Giovanni, and, later that season, Adina in Franco Zeffirelli’s L’Elisir D’Amore.

Later that year she made an impressive debut in Falstaff at Covent Garden, where she returned often to sing memorable performances of Susanna under Georg Solti, Tatyana (Eugene Onegin) and two revivals of Puccini’s Fedora, co-starring with Domingo and Jose Carreras. In London her conductor of choice was Carlo Maria Giulini, notably in the new 1967 Visconti production of La Traviata.

Her recording career included many celebrated discs under Karajan (La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Aida and Otello, and Simon Boccanegra, with Abbado, and Falstaff, with Solti. Freni knew how to husband her voice and never strayed into the heavier repertory.

Her second marriage was to the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, who predeceased her. She is survived by a daughter from her first marriage.