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Music: Voices from the Past

3 minute read
Michael Walsh

Their voices float eerily across more than eight decades, ghostly echoes of a fabled operatic golden age: Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Jean de Reszke, Lillian Nordica and others, recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera by an enterprising music lover armed with an Edison cylinder machine. The sound is strictly low-fi, the scratchy surface noise is sometimes overwhelming, and the tantalizing fragments often break off abruptly with a singer in mid-phrase. But listening to them is thrilling, like hearing Lincoln recite the Gettysburg Address.

Between 1900 and 1904, the Met’s London-born librarian, Lionel Mapleson, immortalized dozens of performances from his perch in the prompter’s box and, later, from a catwalk 40 ft. above the stage. But then he abandoned the project, and the fragile, two-minute wax cylinders were left to decay and, in some cases, break and disappear. As early as 1938, collectors began preserving the priceless vocal treasures. Now a team of two critics and a recording engineer, under the auspices of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, the Performing Arts Research Center and the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, has heroically rescued all 134 of the surviving playable cylinders and issued them in a $100, six-record set available through the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

Here is the effortless technique of Melba, formidable in the mad scene from a 1901 Lucia di Lammermoor. Here is the Italian tenor Emilio de Marchi, the first Cavaradossi, ringing the rafters with a triumphant Vittoria! in a 1903 Tosca. Here too is the white-hot French soprano Emma Calvé, a peerless Carmen; the Polish soprano Marcella Sembrich, who negotiates the Queen of the Night’s treacherous coloratura con molto brio in a 1902 Magic Flute; and the soaring American soprano Nordica (née Norton), who must have been one of the most glorious Brünnhildes in history. And here, in his only extant recording, is the Polish tenor De Reszke; the legendary voice is frustratingly obscured, but his Wagner and Meyerbeer heroes glow with virile grace.

Conventional wisdom has it that late Romantics were given to excess. But aside from a few interpolated (and exciting) high notes, there is nothing egregious about the performances. Indeed, as contemporaries of many of the operas–De Reszke was born in 1850, the year of Lohengrin’s premiere–the old singers project a freshness and an unforced vitality that are often lacking today.

For all the sonic limitations of the Mapleson cylinders, they are shot through with this authentic spirit. Paradoxically, their very primitiveness forces modern listeners through the sound barrier, to reach the heart of the music beneath. It is a region that deserves more frequent visits. –By Michael Walsh

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