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Melba’s Farewell
rec. live, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8 June 1926
Dame Nellie Melba (soprano)
ELOQUENCE 4828093 [77:24]

Australian soprano Nellie Melba (1861-1931), born Helen Porter Mitchell, was one of the greatest operatic singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After singing studies in her hometown Melbourne she went to Europe and was a success in Paris and Russia. She came to London in 1888 and soon became the leading lyric soprano at Covent Garden. She soon was established throughout Europe and conquered the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1893. Her career was uncommonly long; she sang until just before her death. During the war she raised large sums for charity and she encouraged and helped young singers in the beginning of their careers. Both Browning Mummery and John Brownlee, who took part in her Farewell Concert, were her protégés. When it came to making recordings she recorded some cylinders in New York in 1895, but when she heard them she was appalled: "'Never again,' I said to myself as I listened to the scratching, screeching result 'Don't tell me I sing like that, or I shall go away and live on a desert island.'" They were never issued and it was eight years before she accepted to make a new attempt. Some of these are issued on the present disc as fillers to the Farewell Concert at Covent Garden. This was only one of several farewells.

The programme at Covent Garden comprised act II of Romeo et Juliette, Desdemona’s aria and Ave Maria from Otello and acts III and IV from La bohème but only the Verdi and Puccini excerpts were recorded by HMV, since Romeo was sung by Charles Hackett, who was contracted to another record company. It should be remembered that Nellie Melba was almost 65, and with a career of 40 years behind her, her voice is in marvellous shape. Listening to the Otello excerpts the tone is steady, her intonation faultless and her legato singing is even and seamless. Some lower notes are weak and slightly unsteady but the pianissimo at the end of Ave Maria is superb. She is more strained in the Bohème scenes but she often shows her greatness. In Sono andati? her timbre is decidedly girlish, and her power of insight is great. She is well supported by the rest of the ensemble with especially John Brownlee an excellent Marcello. This occasion was actually his debut, aged 26, and in the years to come he became a regular at the Paris Opera as well as Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. He sang at Glyndebourne in the 30s and there recorded the title role in Don Giovanni, the Count in Le nozze di Figaro and Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte. Also Browning Mummery, who already had a career, is an agreeable Rodolfo. The recorded sound varies a great deal and sometimes overloads, but as a document of an important event it is valuable. The importance is further heightened by Lord Stanley of Alderley’s address after the performance and Dame Nellie’s farewell speech.

The studio recordings, made between 1904 and 1910 are also valuable documents, but at the same time they are more problematic. The limitations of the acoustic recording equipment has, to my mind, always been ungenerous to Melba’s voice. Her voice was, even in 1926, very straight, with a minimum of vibrato and almost all the recordings I have heard have tended to give her voice a hooting sound and sometimes given the impression of her singing out of tune. That is of course an illusion, she had perfect pitch. In a way I have to listen through this illusion and decide that it’s the recording process that is cheating me. Then I can appreciate a lot of her singing. Her phenomenal trill, for instance, which can be savoured in the Jewel Song (tr. 11); her vocal equilibristics in the unusual and untypical Massenet aria (tr. 14); her marvellous legato singing in Vissi d’arte (tr. 15); her elegant phrasing in the Lotti aria (tr. 16); her perfectly judged pianissimo in Tosti’s Goodbye (tr. 19) – a beautiful song she often chose as her last encore in her recitals. Tosti, by the way, was a close friend of hers. Another personal relation was with Herman Bemberg, who wrote the opera Elaine especially for her and she gave its premiere at Covent Garden in 1892. On this recording (tr. 13) with ladies’ chorus the composer plays the piano. Finally we have one number from Nellie Melba’s very last recording session, which took place six months after the Covent Garden Farewell. She recorded two duets with John Brownlee and two songs. One of those, the spiritual Swing low, sweet chariot, is included here, and to my ears her voice is more attractive than in any of the other recordings.

Readers who are not familiar with historical recordings of this age should listen first to some samples, before deciding whether to buy. Jaded collectors will need no recommendations from me. A further asset with this issue is Roger Neill’s comprehensive liner notes.

Göran Forsling

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
1. Piangea cantando (Willow Song) with Jane Bourguignan (mezzo-soprano) [6:39]
2. Ave Maria [3:44]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
La bohème:
3. Entrate ... C’è Rodolfo (with John Brownlee, baritone) [3:43]
4. Donde lieta usci (Mimi’s Farewell) [3:03]
5. Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina (Quartet) (with Browning Mummery, tenor, Aurora Rettore, soprano, John Brownlee, baritone) [4:27]
6. Gavotta ... Minuetto (with John Brownlee, baritone, Browning Mummery, tenor, Frederic Collier, bass-baritone, Édouard Cotreuil, bass, Aurora Tettore, soprano) [3:36]
7. Sono andati? (with Browning Mummery, tenor) [4:40]
8. Io, Musetta … Oh, come è bello e morbido! (Death of Mimi) (with Aurora Rettore, soprano, Browning Mummery, tenor, John Brownlee, baritone, Frederic Collier, bass-baritone, Édouard Cotreuil, bass) [4:09]
Dame Nellie Melba (soprano), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Vincenzo Bellezza
9. Address by Lord Stanley of Alderley [3:17]
10. Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell Speech [2:32]

Earlier Studio Recordings – Opera
Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
11. Ah! Je ris de me voir (Jewel Song) (rec 1905) [3:11]
12. All’erta, all’erta, o più tempo non è (Final Trio) (with John McCormack, tenor, G. Mario Sammarco, bass) (rec 1910) [2:49]
Herman BEMBERG (1859 – 1931)
13. L’amour est pur comme la flamme (with ladies’ chorus) (rec 1906) [2:48]
Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912)
Don Cézar de Bazan:
14. À Séville belles Señoras (rec 1910) [2:59]
15. Vissi d’arte (rec 1910) [3:24]
Antonio LOTTI (c 1667 – 1740)
L’infedeltà punita:
16. Pur dicesti, o bocca, bocca bella (rec 1910) [3:58]
Distance tests
17. Vocalises on phrases from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet Mad Scene (rec. 1910) [1:44]
Earlier Studio Recordings – Songs
Francesco Paolo TOSTI (1846 – 1916)
18. La serenata (rec 1904) [3:35]
19. Goodbye (rec 1905) [3:54]
Landon RONALD (1873 – 1938)
20. The Sounds of Earth Grow Faint (No. 4 from ‘Four Impressions’) (rec 1910) [2:38]
Harry Thacker BURLEIGH (1866 – 1949)
21. Jean (rec 1910) [2:53]
Melba’s Last Recording
Traditional (arr. Burleigh)
22. Swing low, sweet chariot (rec 17 December 1926) [2:30]



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