The sound was thrilling, but in reality, atrocious. And she fared not much better on CD. When, years later, I listened to some of the early transfers from historic 78s to CDs of early Melba material, I wondered just what the fuss had been about. Why did opera-goers of her time make Nellie Mitchell from Melbourne the biggest star on two sides of the Atlantic? The transfers had removed a lot of the scratches and crackle but what was left was still thin, even sour. Well, this new release is a revelation.
This is a dub of newly-discovered 1904 metal masters struck from the original wax, which had been languishing unplayed in the Deutsche Grammophon warehouses in Hanover for more than 100 years. Not only are the recordings cleaner than any others I’ve heard, they are also for the first time transferred to CD at Melba’s proper pitch, not erroneously lifted as every other transfer has been. Here is Puccini’s Mimi, sung as Puccini himself taught it to her. And Tosti, Verdi, a very effective ‘Porgi, Amor’ from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and simple folk songs to complete a portrait of her repertoire.
This is acoustic history made palatable. We can at last realise why little Nellie Mitchell ruled the world of opera so absolutely, in that famous era of golden voices.