Am I too loud?
ROBERT HUGILL muses on Wagnerian sopranos
and changing performance tradition
Listening to Dame Nellie Melba's records we hear a voice which is rather white, but could be described as silvery. With a bit of imagination we can, perhaps, appreciate that live she might have sounded like a description of her voice written in 1931 by the veteran American critic W J Henderson; remembering her Metropolitan début when 'the voice was in the plenitude of its glory'. He said her voice 'has been called silvery, but what does that signify? There is one quality which it had which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her: it had splendour. The tones glowed with a star-like brilliance. They flamed with a white heat.' At the time of her European débuts, she impressed critics with her rare beauty of tone and finish of technique.
So what are we to make of the surprising fact that she included Elsa (Lohengrin) and Elisabeth (Tannhauser) in her repertoire, both sung in Italian? Her success in these roles was sufficient for her to try singing Brünnhilde (Siegfried) at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1896. Though she had been encouraged to learn the role by her colleague Jean de Reske, who sang Siegfried, this was a notorious failure and she did not attempt any more Wagner, in fact she had to rest her voice for some weeks before singing again.
But what is puzzling today is that she attempted it at all. In all of Melba's studio recordings and in the live recordings of her 1926 Covent Garden farewell (when she was in her mid 60s) she retains the same apparently light silvery tone, notable for its clarity and bell-like purity. Though I have heard Brünnhilde sung by a number of different voice types, I cannot even begin to imagine what Melba must have sounded like as Brünnhilde and at first sight, you wonder whether she could have been audible at all.
But before we dismiss this out of hand, we must consider the changes that have happened in the musical world since Wagner's operas were premièred.
Melba was born in 1861; Wagner's Ring Cycle was premièred at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876, when Melba was fifteen. So Melba grew up in a world where the performance tradition of Wagner's music was new. In the mid 19th century the increase in the size of opera houses and concert halls meant that there was an increased emphasis on singers' power at the expense of agility and less emphasis on coloratura. Wagner did not really invent the dramatic soprano, but he accelerated a trend that was already happening; though it must be borne in mind that his own performances, with the famous Bayreuth covered pit, must have put less pressure on the singers than subsequent Ring cycles in opera houses where the pits were open.
Copyright © 5 April 2005
Robert Hugill, London UK