16 May 2005

Adieu, notre petite table

Freni Gala, 15 May 2005

One can’t simply jump onto a diva’s bandwagon at the tail end of her career and expect to be touched profoundly by such things as a gala anniversary celebration of her operatic and Met stage debuts, even as an unannounced farewell to the Met stage. (Oversentimental Sieglinde may be able to fake it, but she fakes many things.) If the diva is Mirella Freni (a full half-century on the operatic stage and 40 years since her Met debut), master technician of longevity, singing always “on interest, not capital” (more accurately, on the interest of the interest), who toured the vocal fachs with remarkable restraint (hundreds of lyrical Mimis, Lius, and Micaelas before spintos Aida, Elisabetta, Desdemona, Tatiana; and then when the voice roughened in age, selective verismo), the ecstacy or poignancy of a quiet goodbye (to a relatively placid career) becomes complicated to access. I know, however, that to those who have been there from the beginning, the charge of the gala afternoon was immensely different. Imagine being 20ish in 1965 and hearing her Mimi during her debut season at the Met, then marking the slow ooze of 40 years with dependable Freni performances (though she didn’t sing at the Met at all in the 70s), and now being 60ish and realizing that this “Non ti scordar di me” may have been the last occasion. Alas, 40 years of understated delicacy; with the patience, silence, and consistency of a mother, she has become a second mother to many; but now the mother bows low and with tears in her eyes moves on. Still, to those who were seeing La Freni for the first (and last) time Sunday afternoon, there was a feeling of general loss. I've never bought the Freni title “Last Prima Donna” because there will always be prima donnas in our midst (of varied sorts, now and forever), and therefore always a “last” prima donna in every batch of artists as viewed by succeeding eras; but the occasion of half-built music* for this particular prima donna served to prefigure the moment when our own Voigts and Flemings and Gheorghius and Mattilas make their final bows (predictably, with scary, majestically bloodcurdling versions of “Non ti scordar di me”) and maybe that inevitability was the ghost I saw when the confetti fluttered down silently from the sides and the heavy golden curtain fell (slowly, so gently) on the small, youthfully blonde, tearful Mirella Freni for the last time.

[*N.B. Sieglinde whispers in my ear and says there were three or four other artists at the gala who should be farewell’ing as well. I shall get to that issue at a later time.]