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Melba’s Farewell at Covent Garden
Nellie Melba (soprano)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Vincenzo Bellezza
Concert [32.25]
Melba’s speech [2.25]
Lord Stanley of Alderley’s speech [3.00]
rec. live, 8 June 1926, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London
Reviewed as Download 320 kbps MP3
REVITALIZED CLASSICS [37.50]

Nellie Melba (born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861) was an Australian soprano and one of opera’s first super stars. She became one of the most famous singers of the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries; the first Australian to achieve international fame and recognition as a classical singer. She was most admired for the beauty of her voice and for her apparently phenomenal technique. Critics of the time say that her voice was large, powerful but her acting ranged from non-existent to wooden and she frequently enjoyed indulging in diva behaviour. She also conducted her personal life in a way that the tabloids of today would delight in writing about. And of course her name is associated with four foods, created in her honour by French chef Auguste Escoffier, and of which the dessert Peach Melba is the most famous.

Melba came from a musical family but she didn’t begin to think seriously about a singing career until she was in her twenties. In the mid-1880s she left her husband and went to study singing in Melbourne, taking the pseudonym "Melba" from the city’s name. Then, in 1886 she went to Paris to study with Mathilde Marchesi and nine months later made her operatic debut as Gilda at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1887, followed by performances of Lakmé and of Ophelie in Thomas’s Hamlet with great critical and public success. She came to be especially admired for her coloratura fireworks of mad scenes in Hamlet and Lucia, but her Covent Garden debut in 1888 with Lucia di Lammermoor was not as well-received as some of her previous debuts. The year after however she managed to establish herself with the opera house, returning every season until 1908 and continuing to make appearances there until retiring. She also achieved further success in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, and later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, debuting there in 1893. Her repertoire however was relatively small. In her whole career she sang no more than 25 roles and was closely identified with only ten. She was known for her performances in French and Italian opera but sang little or no German works.

Melba had various contemporary composers writing operas especially for her but those pieces mostly faded into obscurity after her retirement. It is to her credit however that Puccini’s La Bohème was introduced into the Covent Garden and Met repertoires, as she apparently bullied their respective managements into doing so. She had the honour of studying La Bohème with Puccini himself and continued to sing until the last months of her life, making a large number of "farewell" appearances. She died on 23 February 1931.

The download I have reviewed here, from Revitalized Classics, is the remastering of the original recording of Melba’s Covent Garden farewell on 8th June 1926. Revitalized Classics is a site dedicated to the remastering in stereo of old, historical records that could only otherwise be heard in very old formats of poor sound quality. Additionally, the site also has merchandise centred on the exclusive artwork of the various downloads in their catalogue. The albums are available as download only but in three different formats: 320 kbps MP3, 24-BIT-FLAC and 16-BIT-FLAC. As listed in the heading, I’ve listened to Melba’s farewell in the 320 kbps MP3 version both in the stereo effect and without it. I must admit the stereo didn’t work very well and actually I found the sound clearer without it. Whether the FLAC versions are better, worse or similar quality to the MP3 I don’t really know but assume it should be the same.

I always find difficult to judge or comment on a voice I have never heard live in person and that was recorded at a time when the technology was still in its infancy and rather poor. Nellie Melba is in this category and to my mind, doesn’t compare favourably with some present-day sopranos. However, it would be rather unfair to try and compare anything. Therefore I listened to her singing putting it into the context of the time. When Melba performed her Covent Garden farewell she was no longer at the peak of her career. Still her tone does appear quite remarkable and it is thrilling to hear with clarity a voice I had otherwise only read about and never experienced before. Melba sounds better in the two Otello arias she performs here than in the Puccini. In some of the Puccini the voice is a little distorted and in La Bohème’s Entrate Melba seems to be screaming rather than singing some of the high notes. Occasionally the orchestra drowns her voice slightly too but, as this is the digital remastering of a very old recording, some of these issues could be due to the technical features of the old recording rather than her voice or the orchestra performance. There is some slight further distortion when the orchestra kicks in the power but this download still has a very satisfactory sound and is pleasant to listen to.

Die-hard vinyl fans (or of even more ancient types of recording) may not like the remastering and think it is not true to the reality of the time, which is of course a fact. Still I think it’s commendable that Revitalized Classics is remastering some of these very old recordings. I enjoyed listening to Nellie Melba for the first time ever and think it’s important that a historical recording is preserved in this way.

The sound is generally good and clear, though some of the tracks finish a bit abruptly at times, meaning at a point where singer and orchestra were not quite finished, though I suspect this is the fault of the original recording and not the remastering. The download comes with a pleasant enough art work, featuring a colour reproduction of a portrait of Melba.

Additionally to Melba’s singing, we have her farewell speech at Covent Garden. It is emotional and appears to come from the heart. She seems to end in tears and her last words are drowned in the audience’s applause. There’s also a speech by Lord Stanley of Alderley, which I personally found a little exaggerated. Melba’s speech is a historical curiosity and from that perspective it’s interesting to listen to it once. Lord Stanley’s speech on the other hand is uninteresting and unnecessary in my view. Again I assume it was part of the original recording and so it has been included in the final product.

There are several rather interesting remasterings of old and/or historical recordings on the Revitalized website, as well as some merchandise related to the art work of some of the downloads. I found it interesting to browse through it and, from my perspective, only regretted that there isn’t more information surrounding the reasons behind the remastering process and the choices, the original recording and the artists featured. Perhaps it is something that Revitalized Classics could consider for the future. Be aware that these downloads are only available to those within the EU and UK.

To finalise I think that Revitalized Classics is a creditable, deserving initiative. It is contributing effectively to preserving music history as well as precious recordings, featuring artists most of us have heard of but never been able to listen to.

Margarida Mota-Bull
Margarida writes more than just reviews, check it online at Flowingprose.com

Contents
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Otello
Piangea cantando (Willow Song) with Jane Bourguignan (mezzo-soprano) [6:39]
Ave Maria [3:44]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
La bohème
Entrate ... C’è Rodolfo (with John Brownlee, baritone) [3:43]
Donde lieta usci (Mimi’s Farewell) [3:03]
Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina (Quartet) (with Browning Mummery, tenor, Aurora Rettore, soprano, John Brownlee, baritone) [4:27]
Gavotta ... Minuetto (with John Brownlee, baritone, Browning Mummery, tenor, Frederic Collier, bass-baritone, Édouard Cotreuil, bass, Aurora Tettore, soprano) [3:36]
Sono andati? (with Browning Mummery, tenor) [4:40]
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
Address by Lord Stanley of Alderley [3:17]
Dame Nellie Melba’s Farewell Speech [2:32]



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