She died after a long degenerative illness and a series of strokes, said J.F. Mastroianni, her longtime manager.
In the late 20th century, when opera was becoming increasingly internationalized, Freni was hailed as a last exponent of the great Italian operatic heritage.
“That tradition is ending,” Plácido Domingo was quoted as saying in a 1997 New York Times article about Freni. “Mirella is the end of a chain. After that, you cannot see who really follows her.”
Many opera lovers acknowledged Freni’s special claim on this tradition, which valued bel canto principles of producing rich, unforced sound; of shaping even, lyrical lines across the range of a voice; and of sensitively matching sound to words.
In her early years Freni won acclaim for her exquisite singing in lighter roles like Bizet’s Micaëla in “Carmen,” Mozart’s Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro” and Zerlina in “Don Giovanni,” and Verdi’s Nannetta in “Falstaff.” She sang those roles with a matchless blend of radiance, lyrical ardor and girlish pluck.
With her beguiling stage presence, quiet charisma and the affecting vulnerability she could summon in her singing, Freni made Mimì in Puccini’s “La Bohème” a signature part. She won international acclaim in the role in a landmark 1963 production at La Scala in Milan, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who became one of her major champions.
Though vocal beauty and proper technique were central to the Italian tradition, Freni placed a premium on expressivity and feeling. Commenting on the state of opera in a 1997 interview with The Times, she said there were many young artists who sing well and move well. “But that is all,” she added. “Finito! I want something deeper.
“It is important to have emotion, to live through the music onstage,” she continued. “Also, the Italian singers have a special feeling for the language. Even when we speak it is musical.”
Yet she steadily expanded her repertoire and, as the colorings of her voice grew darker with maturity, sang more dramatically intense and vocally heavy roles, like Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello,” Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. She was particularly urged on this course by Karajan, who brought her to the Salzburg Festival to sing Desdemona and the demanding role of Elisabetta in Verdi’s “Don Carlo.”
With the support of her second husband, Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, she ventured into Russian repertory, singing Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame.”
Yet Freni never lost the warmth and richness of her lyric soprano origins. Reviewing her performance in “Manon Lescaut” at the Met in 1990, The Times’ Donal Henahan marveled at her longevity and excellence.
“The wonder of Mirella Freni at this stage of her career,” he wrote, “is that she continues to sing Puccini with seemingly reckless ardor while preserving a surprisingly fresh and beautiful sound.”
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Still, Freni considered herself a judicious soprano. She could say no, even to the imposing Karajan, if she thought a particular role was not right for her. She recorded Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” twice, including a film version conducted by Karajan, but never performed the role complete in a staged production in an opera house.
“I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice,” she said in a 2013 Opera News interview. “Some singers think they are gods who can do everything,” she added. “But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities.”
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She was born Mirella Fregni on Feb. 27, 1935, in Modena, eight months before Luciano Pavarotti was born in the same town. They would become friends and colleagues.
When Freni was 5, her uncle was playing a new recording of the Italian coloratura soprano Toti Dal Monte singing a melodically ornate aria from “Lucia di Lammermoor.” Young Mirella started singing along.
“I sang all the notes,” Freni recalled in that 1997 interview. “My family was amazed. But my father, who was a ‘barbiere,’ like Figaro, thought it was unnatural. He slapped me — with love, of course — and said, ‘What are you doing, stupid girl?’ I was so angry, I refused to sing another note for years.”
When she was 12, her uncle had her enter a national competition. Singing Puccini’s aria “Un bel dì,” Freni won. One of the judges, the great tenor Beniamino Gigli, cautioned her to go slowly. It was advice that she followed.
She made her professional debut in 1955 in her hometown as Micaëla in “Carmen.” Following a season with the Netherlands Opera, she began appearing in major houses and festivals, including La Scala, Glyndebourne in England and Covent Garden in London.
She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965 as Mimì and returned regularly to sing, among various roles, Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” Liù in Puccini’s “Turandot” and a new 1967 production of Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” opposite the star tenor Franco Corelli (with whom she recorded the opera splendidly the next year).
But she had been absent from the Met for more than 14 years when she returned in 1983 as Elisabetta in “Don Carlo,” with James Levine conducting and Ghiaurov as Philip II. In 1996, the Met mounted a production of a rarity, Giordano’s “Fedora,” for Freni and Domingo, garnering rave reviews for both. She sang more than 140 performances with the company in all.
In 2005, at 70, Freni sang in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans” with the Washington National Opera. In May of that year, the Met presented her in a gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of her company debut and her 50th year in opera. The performance was her unannounced farewell to the stage.
Freni’s first marriage, to the Italian conductor and pianist Leone Magiera, also from Modena, ended in divorce. She married Ghiaurov in 1978. He died in 2004. She is survived by her daughter, Micaëla Magiera; two grandchildren; and a sister, Marta Fregni.
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In later years Freni found satisfaction in teaching. After she enjoyed success with master classes at the University of Bologna, the mayor of Vignola, a town near Modena, invited her to establish a center for the study of singing there. Housed in a medieval castle, it drew students from around the world.
“They set up a little ostello” — a cozy hostel — “for the students,” Freni said in a 2005 interview with The Times. “They never want to leave.” She offered guidance and encouragement, but also warnings to be careful.
“They all scream,” she said. “They can’t give expression to the phrase. They don’t give the right accent to the words.” She said that she told her students over and over, “Pazienza! You must wait.”
Asked whether she thought of herself as the “last prima donna,” as she was sometimes called, Freni demurred.
“You tell me why I am the last of a tradition,” she said. “I have done my job honestly. I have worked hard and with joy.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .