Dame Nellie Melba is a prominent name in most histories of great singing. Born Helen Mitchell in Melbourne, Australia (she took her stage name from the city), she rose to become a fixture at London's Covent Garden and other great international houses for three-plus decades until her retirement in 1926. Her name is still synonymous in the vocal world with purity of tone, technical mastery and general vocal health and longevity. Fortunately, she lived well into the age of recording, so that, a century after these first records were made, one can hear for oneself what the fuss was about.
Much of Melba's vocal and musical essence is surprisingly evident on these careful transfers by Naxos of her first, acoustic recordings, made at her home in London in 1904. Of course, today's listener must hear through the crackling extraneous noise (not totally eliminated by the engineers, in favor of retaining fidelity of sound), and accept the fact that early recording technology could not cope either with great volume or extremes of pitch in operatic voices. Dame Nellie's high notes inevitably sound thin, sharp in pitch and without vibrato. The limited amount of time available on the wax cylinders also meant selections were limited in length--fast tempi and haste in execution frequently should be taken as an attempt to get the maximum amount of music available into one recording.
Given all that, one can appreciate on many of these selections the legendary virtues of Melba's singing--her purity of tone, impeccable intonation, perfect trill and facility in coloratura. The recordings with orchestra give more musical pleasure to this listener's ear, perhaps because the somewhat more plush aural background better brings out the essential qualities of the voice. The excerpts from the Lucia and Hamlet Mad Scenes can still thrill today with their dazzling exhibition of bel canto technique. (Curiously enough, she apparently did not have the very highest notes in a coloratura's arsenal, as she does not take the optional high E-flats in either the Traviata or Lucia excerpts. There is absolutely no problem with any other note she chooses to sing.) Moreover, a liquid and finely sustained "Porgi amor" from Mozart's Figaro shows that she did not have to hide behind a shower of coloratura--her ability to shape a legato line bears comparison with the best. What she does not have is any great variety of vocal color or depth of emotion in her interpretations, which makes her Violetta, for example, disappointing to those used to a more dramatic approach. However, Melba lived in an age where that kind of naked emotional display was not the point. This Naxos CD certainly makes it possible to appreciate, at a bargain price, what values Melba *did* epitomize in opera singing of the Golden Age.