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8.110334 - MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 1 (1907)
Nellie Melba (1861-1931)
The Complete Victor Talking Machine Recordings, Vol. 1
That Edwardian icon, Nellie Melba, was born Helen Porter Mitchell. in Melbourne, Australia, on 19th May 1861. Her parents were musical and started her musical training early, first with piano then with singing lessons. When she was eighteen, she began to study voice more seriously with Pietro Cecchi, an operatic tenor who had emigrated from his native Italy. Cecchi, with whom she continued her vocal education until her departure from Australia in 1886, undoubtedly gave her the solid basis for a career that would last forty years.
In 1882 Melba embarked on a brief but stormy marriage with Charles Armstrong, by whom she had a son George, born on 16th October 1883. Melba had natural gifts, a driving ambition, a sense of her own worth, and instinctive musicality. Such a woman found life in a tin-roofed shack in Northern Queensland intolerable and was soon back in Cecchi’s studio. Keenly aware that Australia lacked the opportunities she sought, she went to Europe. Shortly after her arrival there, she was in Paris, embarking upon a strenuous course of nine months’ study with Mathilde Marchesi, one of the great voice teachers of the period. Madame Marchesi recognised Melba’s potential; here was a genuine diamond that needed only polishing. In less than a year Melba absorbed ten complete rôles, learned the rudiments of acting and gained proficiency in both French and Italian. She made her operatic début at the Monnale in Brussels as Gilda in Rigoletto on 13th October 1887. She was successful, and sang her first performances of Traviata and Lucia there that season. Here she had the good fortune to be heard by Lady de Grey, later the Marchioness of Ripon, a power in the musical world of London, who persuaded Augustus Harris, the manager of Covent Garden, to give her a contract.
Melba’s début there as Lucia, on 24th May 1888, was coolly received, and she made only two other appearances there that year, a second Lucia and one Gilda. Offered a secondary rôle, that of Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, she returned to Paris and the advice of Marchesi, undeterred by this setback. Next she made a début at the Paris Opéra, singing Ophélie in Thomas’s Hamlet, a rôle in which she had been coached by the composer. This was followed by successful performances in Lucia and Traviata. Appearances at the Opéra cut more ice in London than did those at the Monnaie. With Gladys de Grey’s rallied support, including that of the Princess of Wales, Melba returned to Covent Garden on 18th May 1889 as Juliette when Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette was presented in London for the first time in French (Jean de Reszke appeared as her Roméo). With that unqualified success began what has become known as ‘The Reign of Melba’.
In her farewell speech from the stage of Covent Garden on 8th June 1926 Melba referred to that theatre as ‘my artistic home’. She wielded a great deal of power there, and some sopranos with pretensions to ‘her’ rôles met with short shrift. Faust, La traviata, Rigoletto and, particularly La Bohème were the backbone of her London repertoire, but she undertook a few novelties such as Bemberg’s Élaine and Saint- Saëns’s Hélène, both of which had been written with her in mind. Melba appeared at Covent Garden for twenty consecutive seasons until 1908. After that year she performed there less frequently, singing in only six of the following eighteen seasons.
Her association with the Metropolitan began in 1893 with her début as Lucia. It was in New York that one of the more improbable incidents of Melba’s career occurred: her single performance as Brünnhilde in Siegfried in German on 30th December 1896. With the growing vogue for Wagner in the 1890s at both Covent Garden and the Met, and with the examples of Nordica and Eames winning plaudits in Wagnerian rôles Melba’s hard-headed sense of what suited her vocally and temperamentally was briefly overcome by ambition combined with jealousy of those two sopranos. In 1894 she had tested the Wagnerian waters by singing Elsa and Elisabeth in Italian (the latter only in New York), but as Henry Krehbiel wrote about her foolhardy foray with Siegfried.. ‘The world can ill afford to lose a Melba, even it should gain a Brünnhilde.’ A few days later she cancelled the rest of that year’s New York engagements and sailed back to England. She remained a prominent member of the Metropolitan company until 1901, coming back for two isolated ‘guest’ appearances, a Mimì in 1904, and two final appearances in 1910 - Gilda to Renaud’s Rigoletto, and Violetta to McCormack’s début as Alfredo.
In 1907 Melba was persuaded by Oscar Hammerstein to join his Manhattan Opera Company, making her début on 2nd January 1907 as Violetta. Engaged for ten performances, she enjoyed herself so much appearing at this rival to the stuffier Met that she sang fifteen times. It was during this stay in the United States that she made her first round of Victor recordings. She returned to Hammerstein’s fold briefly during the 1908-9 season, adding Desdemona to her previous rôles.
In 1898, when there was no resident company at the Metropolitan, she had toured the hinterland of the United States with what was called the Melba Grand Opera Company. The experience of being in charge heartened her when she embarked on her lengthy tours of Australia in 1911 and 1924 as head of the Melba- Williamson troupe. In 1928 there was another Australian tour, and, although Melba’s name was associated with it, she went on stage but once. At 67, for a final farewell, she repeated part of the programme of her Covent Garden adieu, the last two acts of Bohème and the opening of Act 4 of Otello.
Accounts of Melba’s proficiency as an actress vary from the laudatory (the minority) to the dismissive, yet she held her own in a stage career notable for its duration. I suspect she succeeded primarily as a ‘presence’. It seems she generally avoided unnecessary stage movement, content to sketch a general sense of the action. She knew very well indeed that what the audience paid for, clamoured for, was Melba’s voice in Marguerite’s or Mimì’s music rather than a striking characterisation. With the years her figure became cumbersome, but at the same time she radiated dignity. She had learned early on how to be taken on her own terms.
Listening to the records, one may at first find her charmless and not much that is insinuating in her approach. It takes time to listen to them and appreciate the clean attacks, the admirable steadiness of tone and the way in which the voice blooms as it rises in a climactic phrase. The more one hears Melba, the more one comes to appreciate the opalescent play of colour as she sings (for example, the word ‘misterioso’ in Violetta’s Ah! fors’è lui).
There are details that stick in the memory. The sadness she projects in the phrase, ‘nell’ora del dolore’ in Tosca’s Vissi d’arte which lacks some portamenti where we customarily encounter them. Her Caro nome in Rigoletto omits the introductory recitative but gives her the coda which concludes with one of her trills famous for its regularity, but here she sustains it through an exquisitely calibrated diminuendo. In the manner of the divas of her time, she ends her Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor in the lower octave, but in the preceding cadenza with flute Melba’s no-nonsense staccati seem almost impertinent in their assurance.
Critics have taken Melba to task for the general mediocrity of the song literature she favoured. Again, it takes some effort to conceive of a time when the public was far less exposed to music, except what they could produce at home, than is the case nowadays. If there seems something saccharine about a song like Tosti’s Good-bye, it is worth while not to judge it, but rather to listen to the utter conviction with which Melba performs it, rising to a higher emotional temperature than was her wont. Or listen to Tosti’s Mattinata, in which she plays her own accompaniment. In the early records with orchestra a singer would be moved forward or back from the horn to avoid ‘blasting’ with too loud a tone too close to the recording horn, but, when the singer is seated at the piano and playing it, there is little room for any movement. In Mattinata there is a special sense of intimacy that derives as much from her controlled dynamic range as from her playing of the broken chords in the accompaniment.
Today singers are inclined to conform, so it is refreshing to hear the rhythmic liberties a singer like Melba will indulge in. She controls these variations of tempo with a keen musical instinct. Tosti’s Serenata contains some delicious examples, as well as some figurations that are like filigree. The result of listening intently to a number of Melba’s recordings is to surprise oneself with details that had earlier been overlooked.
© William Ashbrook
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