About this Recording
8.110335 - MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 2 (1909-1910)

Nellie Melba (1861-1931)
The Complete Victor Recordings, Vol. 2

By 1904 Melba was at the zenith of her career; a latterday Jenny Lind she had long been an international synonym for bel canto when the ‘test’ recordings she made in her London apartment in March for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company were put on general release. Whereas these represented yet another commercial coup for the Company, to place with Caruso and others, to the diva herself they became functional adjuncts to her already household name: not merely calling-cards for the benefit of royalty, journalists and the like, but testaments to singing teachers around the world of her hallowed García- Marchesi method to be aired to students. Few of the first published matrices were without technical flaws, however, and during the years that followed, with improving technology, many of the London selections were re-recorded, and with the New York sessions (from 1907 onwards), further opportunities were afforded, theoretically, at least, both for improvement on what had so far been achieved, and also to reflect recent additions to Melba’s repertoire (see Producer’s Note, Melba American Recordings Vol.1, Naxos 8.110334).

Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, near Melbourne, on 19th May, 1861, the eldest child of immigrant David Mitchell, a selfemployed builder and amateur bass singer who had come from Scotland during the 1851 gold rush. Her mother encouraged her to study piano, organ and singing and during her teens, at Melbourne Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Nellie received her first serious vocal training from Ellen Christian, an English-born contralto and former pupil of the baritone and preceptor Manuel García Jr., the inventor of the laryngoscope. After leaving college in 1880, she continued her studies in Melbourne with Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor from California who had toured Australia in Lyster’s company.

In 1882 she married Charles Armstrong, a sugarplantation owner from Brisbane. Although she bore him a son, the marriage was not a happy one and she soon decided to pursue her career instead, first as a pianist at society functions then as a soprano. Continuing her training with Cecchi, in Australia she earned rave notices and in 1886, on her father’s appointment as commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London, she resolved to try her luck in Europe and went with him. In London, at that time a major cultural centre, she made little initial impact but in Paris she had the good fortune to meet the catalyst to her future success in Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913), herself a noted ex-contralto pupil of the younger García and a celebrated teacher, from whose Parisian studio had emerged a long line of sopranos schooled in the ‘Marchesi Method’. Under Marchesi’s guidance Melba made a successful début, as Gilda in Rigoletto, at the Brussels Monnaie, in October 1887.

Melba’s high-profile début at Covent Garden, as Lucia, in May 1888, in a house newly refurbished for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee season, while not artistically so unqualified a triumph, brought her both royal patronage and an entrée to high society through a patroness of the arts, Lady De Grey. From 1889 onwards Covent Garden would remain the focal point of her career and ever afterwards Melba regarded it as her artistic home, appearing in almost every annual international season until 1914, and after the first World War more intermittently until her retirement in 1926. The other prestigious débuts of her operatic phase included the Paris Opéra in 1889, La Scala, Milan, in 1892 and the Metropolitan, New York, in 1893. Additionally, she was a regular attraction at Monte Carlo and a firm favourite at major opera centres in Italy, Russia, Scandinavia and Austria.

Melba’s 1904 season at the Met was cut short by indisposition (she appeared only once, in La Bohème) and, as Vincent Sheean reminds us (in The Amazing Oscar Hammerstein) by January 1907, when she was once again on the New York stage (as Violetta in La traviata) with the Met’s struggling rival, Oscar Hammerstein’s recently-opened Manhattan Opera Company, she was “a dominant figure in opera everywhere, and the curiosity over her return to America was great”. As a calculating businesswoman Melba apparently did this neither for money nor kudos (having reached the summit of opera she now knew her parabola was descending) but rather out of admiration for the German-born entrepreneur, that “most American of Americans, and the only man who ever made me change my mind”. By this time Melba’s fame, Sheean estimated, “transcended opera and even the theater itself, becoming part of the general consciousness”.

Two months later Melba made her first Victor recordings and already the selections were beginning to reflect her gradual evolution from uncrowned queen of opera to best-selling concert attraction. Soon concerts and promotion were to be her mainstay and during the remainder of her career she would ‘sing to the masses’, making several protracted recital tours of Europe, the Unites States and Australia. Sharing plaudits with violin virtuoso Kubelik and her long-standing friend, flute obbligatist and manager John Lemmoné, especially after 1912, she made extensive tours of Great Britain, the United States and Canada. In common with McCormack and other major concert attractions she embraced popular taste without condescension.

Melba’s 1909-1910 American sessions offer, in the midst of other operatic items, some creditable repeats of the Lucia and Hamlet Mad Scenes (most recently attempted at the Camden sessions of 1907), Se saran rose (her 1888-vintage ‘Melba Waltz’) and samples of her newly-assumed role of Desdemona. The bias, however, has shifted markedly towards art song, some of it interestingly self-accompanied, including historically compelling (if slightly less-than-idiomatic) renderings of Debussy’s En sourdine and Reynaldo Hahn’s D’une prison and three songs by her erstwhile accompanist and arranger Landon Ronald (1873-1938): O Lovely Night and originally unpublished versions of Down In The Forest and White Sea Mist (this last first attempted at the July 1907 session, with the composer at the piano).

Peter Dempsey

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