Photo by Spencer Shier, from Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne (2018) by Frank Van Straten. Photo of Melba used as intro image by Baron Adolph de Meyer, National Portrait Gallery, London.

2024 marks one hundred years since the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1924, the most ambitious display of operatic talent to be seen in Australia. In Part 2, ROGER NEILL continues his exploration of the events surrounding this mighty undertaking.

Ten and a half more weeks in Melbourne

melba otelloMelba as Desdemona. Photo by Spencer Shier. State Library Victoria, Melbourne
The second week (commencing Saturday, 5 April) in Melbourne started with repeats of Lucia di Lammermoor, Tosca, Rigoletto and La bohème (with Melba), including a first matinée on the Saturday. During the week, Nellie Melba announced her support for a permanent opera company in Australia with its own permanent orchestra, a wish that was not fully to come to fruition for half a century. At the same time, The Idler in Table Talk revealed for the first time: ‘I hear that Melba is writing a book about her life, with some assistance from Mr. Beverley Nichols.’

The opera being rehearsed at the time was Verdi’s Otello with Melba in her second role with the company, Desdemona. It opened on Saturday evening (12 April). In the run-up to the opening, Melba gave an interview to The Herald in Melbourne, where she reminisced about meeting Verdi in Milan after her performance of Gilda in Rigoletto at La Scala. He came backstage, she said, and they arranged that the composer would come the following morning to hear her Desdemona. This he did. ‘My child,’ he said (according to Melba), ‘you have made me very happy. You give it beautifully. It is perfect.’

She told Verdi that she had studied his music with the famous Neapolitan songwriter, Tosti, which Verdi thoroughly approved. There has never been any corroboration of this oft-told story, but it has the ring of at least some truth.

Otello had been first performed in Australia (in Sydney) in September 1901 by J.C. Williamson’s Italian Opera Company with Dalia Bassich as Desdemona, Vincenzo Larizza in the title role and Ferdinando Cattadori as Iago. Melba had previously sung the role in Australia with her Melba-Williamson Company of 1911. It had been first produced in February 1887 at La Scala in Milan with Romilda Pantaleoni as Desdemona and Francesco Tamagno as the Moor. It is widely seen as a radical development in Verdi’s art and a fine setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Of Melba’s opening performance, The Argus reported:

What one wants most of all in a Desdemona is a clear purity of tone, a purity which never loses character even in moments of emotion; and Melba, above all others, represents that ideal of pure singing. At the magic of her touch the tragic last act is transformed into a thing of infinite pathos.

However, of the Spanish tenor Antonio Marques, in his first outing with the company, ‘one could not help wishing for a more responsive Otello … The fine voice with which nature has endowed the tenor is hardly heard to full advantage.’ The critic also did not enjoy his vibrato. Nevertheless, Apollo Granforte’s Iago ‘approaches the ideal of drama through music.’ The Argus continued:

His is a very satanic Iago, crafty and plausible—a finely conceived character study full of graphic touches. Signor Granforte is a very powerful actor, who never forgets that he is a singer.

All the minor roles were appreciated, as were the chorus and the orchestra under conductor Arnaldo Schiavoni, and, at the curtain, Melba paid tribute to chorus master Zucchi and stage director Farinetti.

There were to be two other first performances following the opening of Otello: The Barber of Seville on Wednesday (16 April) and Carmen on Saturday 19th. Both of these new productions had lead female roles—Rosina and Carmen respectively—composed for mezzo-sopranos, but frequently taken over by ladies with higher vocal ranges.

From time to time the company gave Gala Concerts, one such being at His Majesty’s on Good Friday Night, 18 April. It included Toti Dal Monte (who sang the ‘Carnival de Venise’ Variations of Benedict), an aria from La forza del destino sung by Lina Scavizzi, Antonio Marques singing ‘O paradiso’ from L’Africana by Meyerbeer, and a somewhat premature ‘Christ is Risen’ by Rachmaninov sung by Prince Alexis Obolensky.

The Barber of Seville was introduced on 16 April. It was the company’s first comic opera, providing another sparkling bel canto role for Toti Dal Monte. Rosina was a part that Melba had sung for years, as now did Toti, although, as discussed, Rossini had composed the lead role for a mezzo, not a soprano.

The introduction of Rossini’s Barber to Australia in June 1843 is more complicated than it might appear, principally because the music seems to have been a mixture of Rossini and the English composer, Henry Bishop. Opening in Sydney, the Rosina was mezzo Louise Gibbs. It had originally been premiered (‘a scandalous failure’, with tenor Manuel Garcia as Count Almaviva) at the Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1816 before rapidly gaining popularity worldwide.

While many of the bel canto operas staged by Melba’s company were treated as unnecessarily old-fashioned by Australian opera critics of 1924, The Barber of Seville was welcomed as a old friend, still worthy of respect as a result of its ingenious libretto (by Sterbini, based on Beaumarchais) and ‘fresh and piquant’ music. Of course, Toti Dal Monte had been specifically hired to sing the lead roles in the bel canto operas (now vacated by Melba), and she was greeted as Rosina most warmly, ‘reaching a level of great beauty and charm’. The Argus continued:

Dal Monte is truly a coloratura singer of the most accomplished kind, but she is much more than that. Her florid passages become, strange as it may seem, the medium for the vivid expression of moods and wayward fancies, and all the time her artistry is undeniable and irresistible.

On top of that:

Signor Dino Borgioli has done nothing more distinguished in conception and execution than his debonair impersonation of the amorous Count. His singing had clearness and precision that cannot be estimated too highly.

Luigi Ceresol’s Figaro was rated more highly than had been his previous Marcello and Sharpless performances, and Gaetano Azzolini was a gratifying comic Bartolo. ‘Among the best things of the evening’ was the ‘La calumnia’ of Umberto Di Lelio’s Basilio.

In the case of Carmen, Melba never stole the title role from the mezzos, being content to sing the secondary (soprano) part of Micaela. It was an opera first performed in Australia in May 1879, given in Melbourne by W.S. Lyster’s company (with soprano Rose Hersée as Carmen and Annie Stone as Micaela). This was just four years after its premiere at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where the title role was taken by a genuine mezzo—Célestine Galli-Marié. It was to be Bizet’s last and most successful opera.

In 1924 The Argus referred to Carmen as ‘that old favourite’ and greeted the Melba company’s production as ‘an immense popular success.’ And, in her Australian debut in the title role, Aga Lahoska, a true mezzo, was a triumph:

Mdlle Lahoska’s treatment of the title role was upon lines which threw it into high relief, making it picturesque, vivid and alive.

However, the Micaela, Augusta Concato, ‘could not achieve the naturalness, perhaps because her singing was not sufficiently easy, to conform to the mood of the music.’ (Stella Power took over the role from 31 May.) Apollo Granforte was ‘a gay and reckless Escamillo’, while Nino Piccaluga was a ‘gallant, passionate’ Don José.

A full week after the introduction of Carmen, on Saturday 26 April came the premiere of Verdi’s Il trovatore. It had first been performed in Australia at the Princess’s in Melbourne in October 1858, five years after its premiere in 1853 at the Teatro Apollo in Rome. The first Australian cast included Maria Carandini as Leonora, Julia Harland as the gypsy Azucena. Leonora was not a role that Melba ever attempted. Perhaps she thought it too heavy for her voice, along with the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Aida and other roles.1

The Argus’s critic noted that the opera had survived in the repertoire despite its ‘incoherency’, an observation quite as apposite to this day. The Argus was most taken by Phyllis Archibald’s Azucena, Archibald’s debut with the company, ‘a great artistic and popular success.’ It seems most likely that Melba had first become familiar with Archibald’s work when the latter sang major roles with the BNOC at Covent Garden in 1922, Melba herself joining the company the year later.

With regard to Lina Scavizzi’s Leonora, The Argus was less enthused: ‘She hovers over her high notes at times, fluttering this way and that, instead of remaining serenely poised.’ Singing the troubadour Manrico, Antonio Marques was also given an ambivalent report: ‘Some of his singing was quite effective; some of it, on the other hand, was marred by extreme laziness of definition.’ As usual, Apollo Granforte was greeted with critical applause, and Umberto Di Lelio’s Ferrando was ‘eloquent’.

There was eager anticipation in the press for the third (and final) role that Nellie Melba would sing in the season—Marguérite in Gounod’s Faust, which opened on the following Friday (2 May). It had first been performed in Australia in Sydney in 1864 with Lucy Escott as Marguérite, Henry Squires as Faust and Henry Wharton as Mephistopheles. It was toured through Australia and New Zealand by Fanny Simonsen and her daughters from 1872. Premiered in 1859 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, it swiftly became an international success.

Melba first saw Faust aged twenty-three, when it was given by the Montague-Turner Company at Mackay in Queensland in 1884. She was later coached in Paris in the Marguérite role—the singing by the composer and the acting by her friend Sarah Bernhardt. The consequence was that she became fêted for her performance of the role at the Paris Opéra in the 1880s before going on to sing it at Covent Garden, St Petersburg, Stockholm and elsewhere. It was a role that Melba sang to great acclaim in Australia in 1911.

She returned to the opera in Melbourne on 2 May 1924, greeted as ‘a Marguérite who can sing, not merely a singer trying to be Marguérite.’ The Argus went on:

Last night … Melba sang wonderfully, sang, indeed, nobly, after nature’s own method. One could not but be amazed at the spirit of sheer youthful joyousness that animated the whole interpretation in its earlier stages.

However, ‘the Mephistopheles of M. Huberdeau is not, as a matter of fact, a very debonair or persuasive individual’, while Dino Borgioli’s Faust was ‘rather conventional’. The Queensland mezzo Vera Bedford was ‘in character as the foolish old Martha.’ For the first time on the tour, Melba’s friend and accompanist Frank St Leger conducted.

The opening of Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah took place on the following evening (3 May). It had first been staged in Australia during the Melba-Williamson Company’s previous tour in 1911 with Eleanor de Cisneros as Delilah and Franco Zeni as Samson. It had had its premiere in 1877 in Weimar. It was not an opera that The Argus’s 1924 critic warmed to greatly: ‘Saint-Saëns music says little and rarely goes below the surface of things.’

Phyllis Archibald had been specifically chosen by Melba to sing Delilah—and she was a great success in the role at His Majesty’s:

Miss Archibald gave the full flavour of sensuous tone to all the favourite songs of ‘that accomplished snare’, Delilah,2 and was able to assert her best form very effectively in music which suits the warmth and richness of her tones.

Meanwhile, ‘Senor Marques’ large voice, with its open tone, is just right for the innocent strong man, and he looks the part too.’

Five days later (8 May) came the opening of another bel canto favourite of yesteryear, Bellini’s La sonnambula. Its premiere in Australia had been one of the earliest—at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Hobart in October 1842, where Amina was Theodosia Stirling (mother of Nellie Stewart), Elvino was tenor John Howson and Rodolpho was the impresario Frank Howson. From 1866, Amina was a favourite role of Fanny Simonsen and her daughter Martina. La sonnambula had been premiered in 1831 at the Teatro Carcano in Milan with two of the greats—Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Rubini.

Curiously, Melba never seems to have sung (or recorded) anything of Bellini’s, but Toti Dal Monte was already famous in Italy and South America for her Amina. The opera itself was at its greatest depth of unfashionableness in 1924. ‘For sheer vapidity and inaneness La sonnambula is hard to beat,’ pronounced The Argus. Nevertheless,

Signorina Dal Monte has given us ample evidence this season that fioritura is not the lost art many imagine it to be. In a role made famous by such brilliant exponents as Jenny Lind, Patti and Tetrazzini, she gave us still more evidence last night. Her every phrase has a meaning of its own …

And ‘Signor Borgioli’s delightfully fluent and easy singing helped invest [Elvino] with a great deal more humanity than naturally belongs to it.’ Rodolpho was ‘very capably suggested by Umberto Do Lelio. Soprano Doris McInnes from Narrandera in New South Wales ‘did very well in the small part of Teresa.’  

As it entered its seventh week in Melbourne, the management of the Melba-Williamson Company proudly announced that the twelve operas so far given had attracted 100,000 audience members. No prediction was made on the ultimate financial outcome.

As previously noted, Melba had sung and abandoned the title role in Verdi’s Aida. It needed a singer with a larger voice, a dramatic soprano, and for the new production in Melbourne, which opened on Thursday 15 May.

Its first (rather lacklustre) outing in Australia had been in September 1877 at the Opera House in Melbourne with Augusta Guadagnini as Aida, Margherita Venosta as Amneris and Eduardo Camero as Radames. It had been famously premiered in Cairo to open the new Opera House on 24 December 1871, having been commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt.

It opened at His Majesty’s on Thursday 15 May with Augusta Concato, specially recruited for the part, in the title role, with Phyllis Archibald as Amneris and Nino Piccaluga as Radames. The Age led off with its admiration for the ‘sumptuous’ production and design, followed by its surprise that Concato was so good, following her disappointing Butterfly and Micaela:

Many possibly looked to get an Aida of an unsatisfactory kind. But they were agreeably disappointed. The Concato conception of Aida was no masterpiece of operatic art, but it was certainly effective, sometimes in a high degree.

Phyllis Archibald’s Amneris was expected to be first-rate, and it was: ‘[Her] treatment was in quasi-Wagnerian style, and aside from her un-royal uneasiness in the first part of her scene with Radames, all finely done,’ while unsurprisingly Nino Piccaluga’s Radames was ‘on heroic lines’.

The next opening in the Melba-Williamson Company’s Melbourne season, on Wednesday 21 May, was the double bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci—‘Cav and Pag’. Although they had first appeared two years apart in 1890 and 1892, it was not long before the two works were harnessed together as a double bill. Effectively, together they came to represent a doorway from bel canto to verismo.

Cavalleria rusticana opened at the Teatro Costanzi with Gemma Bellincioni as Santuzza, while Pagliacci was premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan with Adelina Stehle as Nedda. Nellie Melba was an early adopter of Leoncavallo’s opera, singing Nedda in the Covent Garden premiere of Pagliacci in 1893 (with Fernando De Lucia as Canio). But she never sang Santuzza. The two operas were first presented in Australia at the Princess’s Theatre in Melbourne in September 1893 by the Williamson and Musgrove Italian Opera Company—although performed on separate nights. Italia Del Torre sang both Nedda and Santuzza. The Canio (to Del Torre’s Nedda) was Fiorello Giraud, original creator of the role.

On the opening night at His Majesty’s (21 May): in Cavalleria rusticana, Santuzza was Lina Scavizzi, Turiddu was Nino Piccaluga, Edmondo Grandini was Alfio, and Doris McInnes was Lola; and in Pagliacci: Aurora Rettore was Nedda, Antonio Marques was Canio, Apollo Granforte was Tonio, and Antonio Laffi was Silvio.

After thirty years, they had become ‘inseparable twins,’ said The Argus. ‘[They] may be occasionally crude and coarse in their mode of musical expression, but one cannot deny the vitality they owe to the vigour of their treatment and the directness and dramatic intensity of their plots.’

In ‘Cav’, the Santuzza of Scavizzi was ‘full of distinction … deeply moving’, while Piccaluga’s Turiddu was sung ‘with zest and energy’, and ‘excellent work’ was done by Grandini’s ‘bluff’ Alfio, also by Doris McInnes and Vida Sutton, who was Mamma Lucia.

In ‘Pag’, Granforte’s prologue ‘deservedly won for him a tremendous ovation,’ and Marques’s Canio had ‘intensity without falling into the pit of exaggeration.’ As Nedda, Rettore ‘sang with great warmth and a good deal of charm.’ But perhaps the greatest plaudits of the evening were awarded by The Argus to the conductor, Franco Paolantonio. While the orchestra was ‘forcible, even violent, it was always controlled and exact and regardful of the singers.’

The penultimate work produced in Melbourne by Melba-Williamson (opened 24 May) was Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Its premiere had been in February 1881 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris with Adèle Isaac, who sang all three principal soprano roles—Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia. It was not produced in Australia until 1912, brought by the Quinlan Opera Company with Lalla Miranda as Olympia, Edna Thornton as Giulietta and Enrichetta Onelli as Antonia.3 It was never part of Melba’s repertoire.4

The new production had three different sopranos in the leading roles: Toti Dal Monte as Olympia, Aga Lahoska as Giulietta and Lina Scavizzi as Antonia. Dino Borgioli was ‘an ardent and very gullible’ Hoffmann. ‘Signorina Dal Monte … deserves thanks not only because she sang so brilliantly,’ wrote The Argus, ‘but also because she kept the comic business within bounds.’ Meanwhile, Mdlle Lahoska’s Giulietta ‘vividly suggested the voluptuous personality of a thoroughly heartless courtesan’, and ‘Signorina Scavizzi has ample stamina for the hectic death scene of Antonia.’

An unusual occurrence on 2 June was the baptism at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne of the infant daughter of mezzo Carmen Tornari and her husband, prompter Amleto Tornari. The girl was christened Nellie Melba Tornari and Dame Nellie was an intended godmother. However, as she was delayed, Toti Dal Monte stood in for her. As a four-year-old, the daughter returned as the child in Madama Butterfly in 1928.

The final offering from the Melba-Williamson Company in their first Melbourne season, opening on 14 June, was Donizetti’s comic opera, Don Pasquale. With it, the company returned to the heartland of bel canto opera, a work which again showcased the special gifts of the company’s A-team, with Toti Dal Monte as the young widow Norina, Dino Borgioli as Ernesto, Apollo Granforte as Dr Malatesta and Gaetano Azzolini in the title role.

It had been premiered at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris in 1843 with an all-star cast including Giulietta Grisi, Giovanni Mario, Antonio Tamburini and Luigi Lablache. It came first to Australia (as a whole) in January 1856 at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Maria Carandini as Norina and Paolo Borsotti as Pasquale.5 Again, it was never sung by Melba.

The treatment of this opera by The Argus reflected strongly the opinion of all the Australian music critics of the day, that along with the previously given bel canto works—Lucia di Lammermoor, The Barber of Seville, La sonnambula—could at best be regarded as museum pieces, disconnected from current tastes. They could not foresee the revival of interest in them by later artists, led by Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

Nevertheless, The Argus critic fully appreciated the vocal skills of Dal Monte, Borgioli, Granforte and Azzolini. Toti was ‘delightful … as flippant a little flirt as ever induced an aged bachelor to demonstrate that there is no fool like an old fool.’ As Pasquale, Azzolini ‘proved to have reserved the best of his capital comedy studies till last.’

The Melbourne season at His Majesty’s finished on Thursday 19 June. They had given eight performances a week for eleven and a half weeks, eighty-six in all, including sixteen operas, seventeen if one counts both works in the double bill. The oldest opera was The Barber of Seville from 1816 and the newest Madama Butterfly from 1904, although that was already twenty years old.

As reported by the Australian Musical News, total audiences at His Majesty’s numbered 211,200 with nearly every performance sold out. And the critics had been generally highly supportive. How would the company do next – in Sydney?


To be continued


Note on Spencer Shier

Many of the photographs included here were taken by the Melbourne-based portraitist Spencer Shier. He was born in 1884 and died at his home at Toorak in 1946. At his studio in Collins Street, he specialised in sittings with politicians, actors, singers, dancers and other society figures. During the Melba-Williamson Company’s season in Australia in 1924, he appears to have had special access to the artists and the productions. He also took movie film of Nellie Melba at home at Coombe Cottage in 1927. A portrait of Melba by Shier is on permanent display in her ‘artistic home’, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.



1. Melba sang Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro just once – at La Monnaie in 1921; and she sang Aida at Covent Garden in 1892 abandoning the role a few years later; she famously attempted Brünnhilde in Siegfried at the Met in 1896, but only once

2. Milton, Samson Agonistes, line 230

3. Variously said to be from Milan and Ireland, Miss Onelli was presumably born Henrietta O’Neill

4. Melba’s Australian contemporary, Frances Saville, sang all three soprano roles in a production of The Tales of Hoffmann with Mahler’s Court Opera in Vienna in 1901

5. Catherine Hayes gave a truncated version of Don Pasquale in Melbourne and Sydney in 1854