V0248. NELLIE MELBA: Melba’s Covent Garden Farewell, 8 June, 1926 - Excerpts from Otello and La Boheme, w.Bellezza Cond.Royal Opera House Ensemble. (England) Eklipse 4. Long out-of-print, final copy! - 5019148641339
"There is one quality which [Melba's voice] had and which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her; it had splendor. The tones glowed with a starlike brilliance. They flamed with a white flame. And they possessed a remarkable force which the famous singer always used with continence."
- W.J. Henderson, THE ART OF SINGING
"In 1904 Dame Nellie Melba invited representatives of the Gramophone and Typewriter Co. to her London home and made 18 three-minute recordings. The soprano was then 42 years old and had been a legend for the better part of two decades. She was the reigning ‘Queen of Song’ at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and London's Covent Garden, and she had sung a command performance for an even more celebrated ‘Queen’ - Victoria by name - at Buckingham Palace. In the month of March 1904 she had finally decided to lend her enormous prestige to the newfangled ‘talking machine’ - a forerunner of all recording devices to come. While Melba was hardly the first great artist to make records, her advocacy helped win new respect for what had sometimes been dismissed as little more than a gimmick and a fad....it seems the singer is right there in the living room....the fact remains that Nellie Melba was a unique vocal phenomenon.
Even her detractors acknowledged it. To the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham she was ‘uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting’. The composer and critic Virgil Thomson was kinder. ‘Thanks for the letter’, he wrote to one correspondent. ‘I suggest you listen to some of the old Melba records if you have never heard a convincing trill’. The soprano Mary Garden heard Melba many times and remembered especially the high C she let fly at the end of Act 1 of LA BOHEME. ‘The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden’, Garden wrote in her autobiography half a century later. ‘It left Melba's throat, it left Melba's body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in the box, and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer, ever. It just rolled over the hall of Covent Garden. My God, how beautiful it was’.
Who was Melba? She was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Melbourne in 1861; she took the name Melba, in honor of her home town, when she was 26. After studies with Mathilde Marchesi (whose other pupils included Emma Eames and Emma Calvé, two of Melba's later rivals) she made a spectacular debut at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels as Gilda in Verdi's RIGOLETTO on Oct. 13, 1887. For the next 39 years, Melba sang throughout the world. Celebrated composers such as Verdi, Gounod, Massenet and Puccini worked with her personally as she prepared to sing their operas. In London, all tickets to ‘Melba nights’, as they were called, carried a premium price tag. Her farewell performance at Covent Garden, on June 8, 1926, was recorded live, no easy task in those days, and was attended by most of the British royal family.
The American critic W.J. Henderson aptly described what can be heard on her records. ‘The Melba attack was little short of marvelous’, he wrote. ‘The term attack is not a good one. Melba indeed had no attack: She opened her mouth and a tone was in existence. Her staccati were as firm, as well placed, and as musical as if they had been played on a piano’.
To be sure, Melba is extraordinary in brilliant coloratura display pieces such as Herman Bemberg's ‘Nymphes et Sylvains’, Luigi Arditi's ‘Se saran rose’ and Sir Henry Bishop's ‘Lo, Here the Gentle Lark!’ -- all of which she makes sound easy. Yet she is much more than a mere canary. What tenderness she brings to Mimi's farewell from LA BOHEME and her performance of the HAMLET Mad Scene has probably never been equaled. If I had to choose one single performance, however, it might be Melba's rendition of the ‘Aubade’ from Edouard Lalo's LE ROI D'YS - irresistibly fresh, bright and cheerful....her performance of ‘God Save the King’, accompanied by H.M. Coldstream Guards Band, has the right sense of pomp and circumstance.”
- Tim Page, THE WASHINGTON POST, 9 Feb., 2003
“Melba was a difficult woman in life, and in posthumous recorded form she is still not easy. Melba’s purity eluded it and the power she would sometimes produce alarmed it. Time has also not been on her side in certain matters of style. For a long while after her death, and even in the later years of her career, critical taste tended to require of singers the very things she did not have to offer and it seemed set to disparage the kind of accomplishment in which she was possibly supreme.”
- John Steane, GRAMOPHONE, Feb., 2003
“There are two things I like stiff and one of them's jelly.”
- Forbes Melba Quote of the Day