Melba in Opera & Song 1904 - 1921
Melba was a difficult woman in life, and in posthumous recorded form she is still not easy. The pre-electrical process did not take readily to sopranos as it did to tenors, but it could at least get on with the more full-bodied vibrant type as represented by the Italian, Celestina Boninsegna. 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.
Of her records it is quite common to find that a newcomer will at first find little good to say. The present collection begins with God Save the King (1905), and listening earnestly to it for revelation one is caught doubtfully at best. ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ follows (Camden, 1910) and annoyed by some vowels (including the first) one thinks a sensitive ear would have corrected them and also the misreading of note-values in ‘la storia mia è breve’; but then she takes the high As blissfully and some of the phrases have a special touch so that the newcomer may begin to understand something of why she was ‘Melba’. Then comes that pianissimo top C at the end of the duet with Caruso, and the magical ‘Bada!’ in the Farewell. And so it will go on. The revelations will come (in ‘Depuis le jour’ maybe, or ‘Le temps des lilas’ or ‘Songs my mother taught me’), and the disappointments and frustrations will still arise from time to time.
But much depends on the reproduction, and though I’m loath to say this (because the makers have tried sincerely and conscientiously) I’m afraid the experimental process by which these transfers were effected has proved only partially successful. The originals have been played on a 1919 HMV gramophone (model 202A) and recorded with a stereo microphone in the Senate Chamber at Old Parliament House in Canberra where Melba sang at the opening ceremony in 1927. The work, with its carefully reached decisions, is described in detail, but for all these manifold efforts I found myself too consciously picking them up rather than being able, so to speak, to let my ears take over and enjoy what they heard. And this was immediately rectified by playing the EMI Melba CD made in 1988 by Keith Hardwick (3/89). Here the voice has presence. Played at the same volume-level, the sheer sound of the voice is thrilling: you don’t have to ‘make allowances’ or ‘think creatively’. That disc, like so many other good things, is no longer available, but perhaps it will return one day. Meanwhile here is a valuable selection of great singer’s records, lovingly assembled, imaginatively presented.