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Nellie Melba - The Complete American Recordings - Volume 1
Nellie Melba (soprano)
Enrico Caruso (tenor) (1)
Charles Gilibert (baritone) (3)
Ada Sassoli (harp) (2)
Charles K. North (flute) (4)
Nellie Melba (piano) (6)
Unknown Orchestra/Walther B. Rogers (5)
Recorded 5th, 24th, 27th-30th March 1907, New York
NAXOS 8.110334 [71.49]

 

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Caro Nome (Rigoletto) (1851) [3.51] (5)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)

Si, mi chiamano Mimi (La Boheme) (1896) [4.21] (5)
O Soave Fanciulla (La Boheme) (1896) [3.25] (1, 5))
Vissi d’arte (Tosca) (1900) [4.21] (5)
Donde lieta usci al tuo grido d’amore(La Boheme) (1835) [3.09] (5)
Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893) Air de bijoux (Faust) (1859) [3.09] (5)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Ah! Fors’e lui…Sempre libera (La Traviata) (1853) [4.20] (5)
Francesco Paolo TOSTI (1848 - 1916)

Goodbye [4.17] (5); La Serenata [3.47] (2)
Felice BLANGINI (1781 - 1841) Per valli, per boschi [2.15] (3, 5)
Herman BEMBERG (1859 - 1931) Un ange est venu [3.04] (3, 5)
Reynaldo HAHN(1875 - 1947) Si mes vers avaiet des ailes [2.20] (2)
Wofgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791) Voi che sapete (Le nozze de Figaro) (1786) [3.15] (5)
Ambroise THOMAS (1811 - 1896) Mad Scene (Hamlet) (1868) [7.53] (5)
Luigi ARDITI (1822 - 1903) Se saran rose [3.08] (5)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 - 1848) Mad Scene (Lucia di Lammermoor) (1835) [4.07] (4, 5)
Henry BISHOP (1786 - 1855) Lo! Here the Gentle Lark [3.05] (4, 5)
George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1739) Sweet Bird (L’Allegro, il Penseroso et il Moderato) (1740) [4.23] (4,5)
Francesco Paolo TOSTI (1848 - 1916) Mattinata [2.20] (6)

Before we listen to these recording, perhaps we should read a description of Melba’s voice which was written, in 1931, by the veteran American critic W.J. Henderson; remembering her Metropolitan debut when "the voice was in the plenitude of its glory" he said her voice "has been called silvery, but what does that signify? There is one quality which it had which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her: it had splendour. The tones glowed with a star-like brilliance. They flamed with a white heat."

If we then start listening to this disc we are liable to be puzzled. What we hear can be described as silvery, but splendour or star-like brilliance? It is illuminating to listen to ‘O soave fanciulla’ where Melba duets with Caruso. As on many of his recordings, Caruso’s voice sounds vivid, we feel that he is in the room with us. By contrast, Melba sounds cool and distant. The primitive recording technology loved Caruso’s voice but it did not do justice to many of his soprano colleagues. Not just Melba, listen to many of Caruso’s duets and ensembles and it is frequently the sopranos who seem to lack vividness and immediacy.

So, to a certain extent, we must take Melba on trust. Another point is the change in styles in singers. Melba’s voice has that laser-sharp focus which she shared with many singers from the period and later; something which can be heard in singers like Isobel Baillie, Eva Turner and Frida Leider. This makes it difficult to estimate how large Melba’s voice was. Judging from her repertoire, it must have been pretty substantial. After all she sang Elsa and Elisabeth (both in Italian) and even sang Brünnhilde at the Met, albeit with spectacular lack of success. This headstrong foray into Wagner, as remarkable as Isobel Baillie’s single performance of Act 2 of ‘Tristan’, is the modern day equivalent of Natalie Dessay or Emma Kirkby venturing into this repertoire.

All the recordings on this disc were made in March 1907 for the Victor Talking Machine Company; this is the first of 3 discs that Naxos is issuing covering all of Melba’s Victor records from the period 1907 to 1916 in new restorations by Ward Marston. Melba was around 46 when these recordings were made, but her voice was notoriously long-lived; her final gala at Covent Garden (in 1926, when she was in her mid 60s) was recorded and her excerpts from ‘La Boheme’ display the familiar silvery voice in a remarkable state of preservation.

What these recordings do display are Melba’s clarity and bell-like purity, her ability to spin long phrases and her magical trill. She does not characterise her performances, she is always Melba, but she can colour and inflect her voice. The operatic arias concentrate on Melba’s core repertoire, ‘Rigoletto’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Tosca’, ‘Faust’, ‘La Traviata’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. The fioriture in ‘Caro Nome’ are sung in a fast, untidy manner and this untidy passagework re-occurs in other arias. I found her two excerpts from ‘La Boheme’ magical, but was less enamoured of ‘Vissi d’arte’ because her manner seems too cool for the role. She is better at naivety and innocence and seems too self possessed to throw herself at a man just for love. But to many of her contemporaries she was the epitome of the operatic heroine, they had no difficulty believing in her.

Her excerpt from Act 1 of ‘La Traviata’ made me very curious about how she would cope with Act 3, which requires something rather more than a coloratura soprano and many contemporary light-voiced sopranos have had difficulty making the transition. Here again, though we come to the problem; I am characterising her voice as light because it sounds that way on these discs because of the agility and focus. Was there something else, something more which was not captured by the recordings? We will never know, and that is Melba’s tragedy.

It is in the French repertoire where I have always thought that the match between voice (as perceived on record) and music is best. Represented here by the Jewel Song from ‘Faust’ and both parts of Ophelia’s Mad Scene from ‘Hamlet’, it displays Melba at her best. Though the closeness of the recording means that one or two odd vocal mannerisms are caught as well. One final operatic aria is a curiously matter of fact ‘Voi che sapete’, but Mozart is not a composer which one associates with Melba.

Accompanying the operatic arias is a selection of songs, by composers as various as Tosti, Bishop, Handel and Hahn. Song repertoire of this period can be uninteresting to modern ears, but in the songs Melba seems to let her hair down a little and deliver performances which have an animated charm; in Tosti’s ‘Mattinata’ she even accompanies herself on the piano. One item amongst the songs does warrant closer attention, Melba’s charming rendition of Reynaldo Hahn’s ‘Si me vers avaient des ailes’, a song rather above the common run of ballads that she recorded.

This is a disc for the convinced admirer or for those interested in earlier styles of singing. The combination of the surface noise, early recording techniques and Melba’s strikingly different vocal technique mean that the unprepared listener is likely to need some perseverance before the disc reveals its riches.

Robert Hugill



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