Considering the name of the record company and the period covered by these operas I did some research concerning Nellie Melba’s repertoire and whether she sang any of these. I drew a blank. Her repertoire was quite small and she added no new roles after the turn of the century; instead she reduced the active roles to a mere dozen. Moreover hers was a fairly light voice, even though she essayed both Aida and some Wagnerian roles – her Brünnhilde in Siegfried was a disaster. Most of the roles represented on this recital require a lirico spinto voice. However Melba was coached by Charles Gounod when studying roles from his operas – Marguérite and Juliette – and she was a successful Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. All this is of course irrelevant, especially since Elizabeth Whitehouse’s voice has little similarity with Melba’s, but since both sopranos were/are Australian it was an interesting mission to find some connections.
Melba’s voice was light and nimble with fluent coloratura and bell-like tone – ‘angelic’ is a word often encountered when people describe it. That of Ms Whitehouse is a vibrant, fairly large-sized instrument with a great deal of weight. Her biography lists roles like Senta, Elsa, Fidelio, Amelia, Marie (Wozzeck) and Maddalena (Andrea Chenier). She doesn’t (want to?) vary the tone colour very much to differentiate the characters but phrases intelligently and musically. She has dramatic heft (Marion Delorme, Andrea Chenier) and she can adopt a silvery tone with exquisite nuances (Amleto). Some listeners may find her voice a mite too vibrant but it is a steady voice – no wobbling! – and she delivers honest, well considered readings of these, in the main, unknown arias from, in the main, little known operas.
What about the quality of the music? Maybe it is the familiarity that makes the few ‘standard arias’ stand out as superior. I am talking about "La mamma morta" from Andrea Chenier and "Io son l’umile ancella" from Adriana Lecouvreur where especially the first-mentioned is so much more many-facetted. It offers richer characterization than many of the lesser known pieces. This also applies to the first aria, "O ma lyre immortelle" from Gounod’s Sapho. The opera is seldom performed today but the aria is a lyric masterpiece, here given a dreamy account.
The well wrought orchestral introduction amply demonstrates the impressive sound quality and the surround sound produces very realistic hall ambience and depth. To fully appreciate Gounod one needs to have a sweet tooth, but all but the most saccharin-resistant must enjoy the melodic flow of both this aria and the following one from La Reine de Saba. Also the Cinq Mars aria has a typical Gounod melody.
That Franco Faccio wrote a Hamlet opera was news to me, even more so the fact that the libretto was by Arrigo Boito, who more than twenty years later wrote the masterful librettos for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff. Faccio and Boito remained lifelong friends and Faccio became musical director of La Scala, where he premiered both Otello and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. The latter opera was Ponchielli’s only real success. His last opera, Marion Delorme, which is represented here, was based on a play by Victor Hugo. The aria is powerful and if the rest of the opera is on that level it would be interesting to see it revived. Saint-Saëns was also a one-work composer when it comes to opera – only Samson et Dalila is performed today – but he wrote so much else that has remained in the standard repertoire. Like Gounod he was a skilled tune-smith and the aria here is agreeable. Someone memorably once called him ‘the best composer who wasn’t a genius’.
An exotic bird on 19th century operatic stages was Brazilian Carlos Gomes. He was mainly active in Italy and had at least six operas premiered at La Scala. Even though he sometimes used Brazilian folksongs as thematic material his music is strongly influenced by contemporary Italian opera. He isn’t completely forgotten today; his possibly best work, Il Guarany, was even recorded by Sony a dozen years ago from a performance in Bonn, with Verónica Villarroel and Placido Domingo in leading roles and Salvator Rosa can be had on Regis. And both Caruso and Gigli recorded arias from Gomes’ operas. The aria from Salvator Rosa is finely crafted and Elizabeth Whitehouse characterises it well.
Some of the best things come from Leoncavallo’s pen. Anyone who has heard his version of La Bohème knows that there is much more to this composer than the raw primitivism of Pagliacci. The short aria from Chatterton is very fine and the two excerpts from Zazà offer dramatic writing in the highest division. Another opera to suggest for revival? "Ah! Finalmente!" from Giordano’s Siberia has a melodic appeal far beyond routine writing and seems more inspired than anything I have heard of this composer – a few numbers from Andrea Chenier apart.
The two solos from Cilea’s Gloria are attractive and "O mia cuna fiorita" is beautifully phrased with a fine pianissimo at the end. Of the two concluding Mascagni arias the one from Isabeau is dark – the opera deals with Lady Godiva’s thwarted love affair with Folco – whereas in the operetta Sì he challenges Lehár or Kalman with a nicely lilting waltz.
Richard Bonynge, always curious about unknown music, pilots his forces through these rarities with a safe hand and Patrick O’Connor is a knowing guide to the works and the plots. The hardback disc + book package is classy with photos of Ms Whitehouse and Maestro Bonynge and we get full song texts and translations...
Readers with an interest in some operatic by-ways will find much to enjoy here and the numbers are ordered strictly chronologically, which is an extra plus.