Melba 2: Bemberg (Ocampo), Nymphes et Sylvains
(Historic Masters NM1a / CD track 1)

One of Melba’s closest friends was the elegant and wealthy Parisian composer Herman Bemberg (1859-1931). His opera Elaine was given through her influence both at Covent Garden (1892) and at the Metropolitan Opera (1894/5), Melba in the name part. She regularly sang his delightful songs (often accompanied by the composer) – and enjoyed his clowning and practical jokes. At an evening party in London, Melba was singing Nymphes et Sylvains with Bemberg at the piano when, just before the final cadenza, he accidentally modulated into the wrong key. Without turning a hair, Melba followed him, improvised a few bars leading back, and they finished together, no one having noticed. “Herman, you fool…are you drunk?” she enquired. “Her personal touches abound,” wrote PG Hurst of this recording, “and no other singer I can recall could express with her voice such lightness and gaiety.” Later, she recorded Bemberg’s Chant Vénitien, Les anges pleurent, Chant Hindou, Sur le lac and an aria from Elaine.

Melba 7: Traditional (Burns), Comin’ thro’ the r ye
(Unpublished) (NM1b / CD 2)

Growing up in a Scottish immigrant family in Australia, Melba will have learned this song practically from the cradle. She sang it for the first time in public at a concert in her home suburb of Richmond in 1867, aged six, and thereafter throughout her performing life. Quite why it remained unpublished is a mystery.

Melba 9: Arditi (Mazzoni), Se saran rose ( NM2a / CD 3)

A dazzling exhibition of coloratura, Se saran rose was clearly chosen by Melba for recording in order to show her technique off to best advantage. An Italian conductor and composer, Luigi Arditi (1822-1903) conducted several early Verdi premières in America in the 1840s.

Melba 12: Donizetti (Scott/Cammerano), Lucia di
Lammermoor, Mad Scene “Del ciel clemente un riso”,
Philippe Gaubert (flute) (NM2b / CD 4)

Melba was a celebrated Lucia. She often gave the Mad Scene as an encore, especially if she thought the opera she had just completed (such as La bohème) gave rather short measure. It was a regular part of her programmes in Australia before she came to Europe, and at the Monnaie in Brussels, and Lucia di Lammermoor was to be her debut in May 1888 at Covent Garden, a false start as it turned out – the orchestra “half asleep”, the house half full. As her voice changed with advancing years, she gradually relinquished it. In 1897 Melba and her friend, the great violinist Joachim, were invited to perform together at the Donizetti centenar y celebrations at Bergamo. It is likely that Melba 10 and 11, both takes lost or destroyed, were the beginning of the Mad Scene.

Melba 15 : Handel (Milton/Jennens), L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed
il Moderato, “Sweet Bird that Shun’st the Noise of Folly”,
Philippe Gaubert (flute)
(NM3a / CD 5)

Australian critics were under whelmed when Melba sang in a performance of Messiah for the Sydney Philharmonic Society at Christmas in 1885. “She was obviously unacquainted with the traditions and methods of oratorio,” wrote one. She sang it only once more, years later – paid a massive fee for a performance in an English cathedral. However, in 1894 Melba sang at the Handel Festival in the Crystal Palace, “the carrying power of her voice being demonstrated in an exceptional way by the manner in which it rang through the vast building during her delivery of ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ and the air from L’Allegro
ed il Pensieroso [sic],” wrote her secretar y-biographer, Agnes Murphy. Even in these days of the revival and new-found popularity of Handel, his “pastoral ode” is still rarely performed. The first part of this aria (Melba 13) is of particular interest because it comes to grief. During the cadenza, Melba made a slight slip, stopping almost immediately, and is heard to say: “No, no…oh bother… we’ ll have to begin it all over again.” Melba 13 only exists in one test pressing, the master having been destroyed.

Melba 16: Tosti ( Whyte-Melville), Good-bye
(NM3b / CD 6)

Tosti’s most popular and most frequently-recorded ballad. A “Melba special” that she sang hundreds of times during her long career. Melba sang the sentimental ballads of Francesco Paolo Tosti (1844-1916) regularly as encores, both in the concert hall and the opera house. Tosti accompanied Melba and Jean de Reszke at a command performance for Queen Victoria and the German Empress at Windsor in 1880, only a couple of years after Melba had studied with Marchesi in Paris. He became a close friend of the diva and also acted as a singing coach. Enchanted with her Desdemona, according to Melba, Verdi enquired with whom she had studied the role. “ With Tosti,” she responded. “Ah! caro Tosti. I wondered,” said Verdi. “He is the only man who would have taught you to sing my opera like that.”

Melba 22: Verdi (Hugo/Piave), Rigoletto, “Caro nome”
(NM4a / CD 7)

This take is with orchestra. One night in 1893, having appeared at La Scala as Gilda in Rigoletto, Melba was told that Verdi (1813-1901) was waiting outside her dressing room. Impressed by his simplicity and humility, she later worked with him on Gilda, Aida and (possibly) Desdemona.

Melba 23: Verdi, La Traviata, “Sempre libera” (NM4b / CD 8 )

With orchestra. Melba (then Mrs Armstrong) sang Violetta’s “Sempre libera” at her audition for the 65-year-old Madame Marchesi in Paris in the summer of 1886. “Are you serious?” asked Marchesi. “Because if you are serious, and will study with me for a year, I shall make something extra-ordinary of you.” Violetta was to become one of her prime roles throughout her career.

Melba 25: Guy d’Hardelot (Harris), Three Green Bonnets
(NM5a / CD 9)

Best known in recent years through Placido Domingo’s performances of Because with the “ Three Tenors”, Guy d’Hardelot (1858-1936) was the pen name of Helen Rhodes, composer, pianist and teacher, daughter of a French mother and English father. She studied under Gounod and Victor Maurel at the Paris Conser vatoire and was closely associated with Emma Calvé.

Melba 26: Mozart (Da Ponte), Le Nozze di Figaro, “Porgi
amor” (NM5b / CD 10)

Melba never sang in a complete staged performance of a Mozart opera, but she did sing Act 3 of Le Nozze di Figaro at a gala performance in Brussels in April 1921, and she included the Countess’s aria “Porgi amor”, and Cherubino’s “ Voi che sapete” in recital programmes, together with “L’amero saro costante” from Il re pastore. In fact, Mozart ’s operas were not frequently performed until Gustav Mahler started the process of rehabilitating his works at the Hofoper in Vienna in the 1890s. Michael Scott has written of this Melba recording: “She unfolds the chaste, but exacting, vocal line of Mozart ’s ‘Porgi amor’ with lovely tone and perfect vocal poise, scrupulously observing all the appoggiaturas.”

Melba 27: Hahn (Hugo), “Si mes vers avaient des ailes”
(NM6a / CD 11)

Melba loved and promoted contemporar y French song, including it regularly in her recital programmes – Debussy, Duparc and Chausson amongst them. Reynaldo Hahn (1874- 1947), composer, conductor, singer and pianist, close friend of Proust and Sarah Bernhardt, wrote this delightful and sophisticated song in 1888, aged just fourteen. It was an immediate success, performed and recorded by a number of leading singers. Hahn wrote of Melba’s “strongly supported chest voice and a brilliant, clear and agile high register.” Melba went on to record Hahn’s D’une prison in January 1909.

Melba 28 : Puccini (Murger/Giacosa/Illica), La Bohème,
Addio di Mimì “Donde lieta uscì” (unpub) (NM6b / CD 12)

Writing to Hanover on 28 April, Sydney Dixon lamented: “No 28 is a splendid record from [Melba’s] point of view, but the scratch is so ver y bad she will not pass it. Is there any hope that you can improve it?” Apparently not enough – it remained unpublished, but it is only very faintly audible now. It is still not widely appreciated that Melba had a catalytic role in turning La Bohème into the world’s most popular opera. Initially only fairly successful in Turin in 1896, conducted by Toscanini, Melba sought out Puccini in his hometown of Lucca in Tuscany in order to study it with him. “Puccini came for two hours daily during the ten days of my study,” she wrote. “I believe him to be the coming Italian composer.” She performed La Bohème initially in Philadelphia, then across America, in 1898, giving her first performance of it at Covent Garden the following year.

The role of Mimì became virtually her personal property in that house until her retirement. This recording of Mimì’s Addio is the first of six made by Melba between 1904 and 1926 (the latter at her Covent Garden “Farewell”). Of the 1904 recording, PG Hurst wrote: “ The Addio in La Bohème is Melba’s ver y self, and it seems to be impossible [for others] to approach it.”

Melba 20: Thomas (Shakespeare/Barbier and Carré), Hamlet,
first part of Mad Scene “A vos jeux, mes amis” (NM7a / CD 13)

With orchestra. Only the metal master of the first side (Melba 20) of this celebrated “Mad Scene” has been found in Hanover. Melba sang this Mad Scene at one of Madame Marchesi’s private recitals in Paris, an event showcasing her best pupils. Among the guests were two directors of the Théatre de la Monnaie in Brussels – and the composer of Hamlet, Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), who was later to coach her in the role. Following her success in the role in Brussels, Melba was booked to sing Ophélie with the Paris Opera in 1889. Auguste Vitu, the music critic for Le Figaro, reported: “Madame Melba
possesses a mar vellous soprano voice, equal, pure, brilliant and mellow, remarkably resonant in the middle register, and using with a perfect pastosita [rich softness] … It was Ophélie herself who charmed all eyes and touched all hearts while interpreting with supreme virtuosity the Mad Scene.” He went on to praise “the exceptional quality of that sweet timbred voice, the facility of executing at random diatonic and chromatic scales and the trills of the nightingale.” It was this review that started the creation of the Melba legend.

Matrix 402c: Tosti (Cesareo), La serenata, recorded at 21 City
Road, London, 20 October 1904 (NM7b / CD 14)

This recording was made at G&T’s studio. Andrew Porter has remarked on “the ineffable combination of power, purity and sweetness that flowers in the coda.”

Melba 1: Tosti (Panzacchi), Mattinata (NM8a / CD 15)

This is taken from an early copy metal. At her final performance in the 1907 season for Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company in New York, Melba gave the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor as encore to La Bohème, then, the audience declining to leave, Tosti’s Mattinata to her own accompaniment. Andrew Porter wrote: “ The very first word, ‘Mary’…is a miracle of limpid sound shaped by consonant and vowel.”

Melba 6: Verdi (Dumas/Piave), La Traviata, “Ah, fors’ è
lui…Follie!…Sempre libera” (NM8b / CD 16)

Also taken from an early copy metal. Michael Aspinall has written of this take that it “overran into the label space and it was therefore decided to end the matrix some two thirds of the way through, prior to ‘Follie! Follie!’.” He continued: “ The original matrix was heavily and repeatedly scratched in the process.” Here it is in full, scratches and all. Andrew Porter has highlighted in this recording “Melba’s stylish use of portamento and rubato (as well as some decoration of the vocal line such as Bellincioni, a Violetta whom Verdi admired, also practiced).”

DB 989: Traditional (arranged Burleigh), “Swing Low, Sweet
Chariot”, recorded Small Queens Hall, London, 17
December 1926, piano Harold Craxton. (CD 17 only)

This, Melba’s very last recording, is taken from a discovered Hanover metal master. She was 65 years old and still in remarkable voice.

Historic Masters acknowledges articles for this Issue by Roger Neill | Copyright (C) 2008

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