NELLIE MELBA - Complete Gramophone Co. Recordings, Vol. I
Arias from La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Il Penseroso, Hamlet, Rigoletto, The Marriage of Figaro and La Boh╦me; works by Tosti, Bemberg, Arditi, D'Hardelot, Hahn and Bach/Gounod (Rec. 1904 in London)
NAXOS 8.110737 (B) (ADD) TT:  67:00

NELLIE MELBA - Complete Gramophone Co. Recordings, Vol II
Arias from Rom╚o and Juliette, La Boh╦me, Faust and Le Roi d'Ys; works by Tosti, Bemberg, Foster, Scott-Gatty, Ronald, Bishop, Bizet and Bach-Gounod (Rec. 1904 in London)
NAXOS 8.110738 (B) (ADD) TT:  61:58

NELLIE MELBA - Complete Gramophone Co. Recordings, Vol III
Arias from La Boh╦me, Tosca, Don C╚sar de Bazan, Lohengrin, Faust, Rigoletto, Hamlet and Il re pastore; works by Stanton/Burleigh, Bishop, Ronald, Hue, Mendelssohn, Henschel, Lotti, Duparc, Chausson and Bach/Gounod. (Rec. in Paris and London 1908-1913)
NAXOS 8.110743 (B) (ADD) TT:  76:16


Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) was the greatest prima donna of her time, dominating the operatic scene for four decades. Born Helen Porter Mitchell in a suburb of Melbourne, daughter of Scottish immigrant parents (her father was a prosperous building contractor). Her initial singing lessons were with Pietro Cecchi at her Girls' College—he was taught her secure technique, how to control her natural gifts. When twenty she went with her father to Queensland where she married a handsome adventurer named Charles Armstrong—a mistake from the start. They had a child after which she left him and returned to Melbourne concentrating on her career. After unsuccessful performances in London and Brussels in 1886 she was accepted as a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, singing teacher who lived in Paris, who also taught other famous singers of the time including Emma Eames. The teacher described Melba's voice as "more like that of a bird than of a human creature...and clear as a bell."  It has been suggested that Marchesi merely polished and perfected Melba's voice.  Most importantly, Marchesi had social contacts important to the aspiring singer - she introduced Melba to Gounod, Thomas, Massenet and Delibes (she later would perform in a number of their operas).  In 1887 she sang Gilda in Brussels creating a sensation, but the following year a Lucia at Covent Garden did not go well.  In 1889 she triumphed at Covent Garden in Romeo and Juliet with Jean de Reszke.  Although she had limited acting ability, matronly in appearance and  not particularly beautiful, her voice carried the day.  The performance took place because of influence of one Lady de Grey, a friend of Melba's, her entr╚e into the glamorous social world, an environment Melba found much to her liking.  She loved the money, chic and titles, stating candidly, "I'm a damned snob."  She became tyrannical, business-like and rude, announcing "I am Melba" to anyone who questioned her authority. Gerald Moore, who accompanied many of the finest singers, described her as 'the terrible Melba.'  If she disliked anything, be it scenery, props, lights, even lesser singers, she had them moved or eliminated.

In 1890 Melba met the 22-year old Duke of Orleans, Bourbon Pretender to the French throne and they had an impassioned affair which resulted in the diva not being invited by the Queen to sing at Command Performances.  Charles Armstrong was still Melba's husband and he threatened a messy divorce that would publicize details of her liason with the Duke  The matter was quietly settled and they were divorced in 1900.  The Duke eventually married an archduchess.  Melba's only platonic male friend was flautist John Lemmone who also was her manager; he can be heard on some of her recordings..

Melba did everything she could to hold down competition.  She was so important on the operatic scene that at Covent Garden she had her own dressing room to which only she had the key.  Her fee was fractionally higher than Caruso's, and fame so great a dessert was named after her (Peach Melba), as well as a cracker called (Melba Toast).

In spite of her personality disorders, Melba had a phenomenal voice as evidenced on these three Naxos CDs.  Her voice did not record particularly well, even in the early electric era, but one can hear what all the acclaim is about.  These CDs contain all of her initial 1904 London recordings and, in Volume III, Paris and London recordings, 1908-1913, all as listed in detail above.  Included are multiple recordings of various works and inclusion of the 1904 recording of Sweet Bird from Handel's Il Penseroso in which she stops and says, "We'll have to do it over again!" 

There have been a number of Melba CD reissues, in particular a superb Romophone 3-CD set (81011) of the complete 1907-1916 Victor recordings in transfers by Ward Marston, who did the Naxos CDs.  As Romophone is no longer in business (unfortunately!), doubtless future Naxos issues in their Melba series will include all of that material as well. Also discontinued is a Pearl issue (9353) of selected recordings from 1907 to 1926 which includes her "Farewell Speech" from her Covent Garden concert; an EMI References CD (61070) of  recordings from 1904 to 1906 in transfers by Keith Hardwick, and a Larrikin Voice of Australia CD (CDLRH221), recordings 1904-1926.

Again we are indebted to Naxos for their repertory choices, fine engineering and budget-price.

R.E.B. (March 2003)