By Mr. Dan Ogilvie
In many paintings of the lamentation of Christ, amongst the bowed heads of the mourners, you may find a solitary grief stricken figure looking out at you, the viewer. The purpose of this solitary viewer is to turn the scene from a simple recording of an event into something the viewer can emphasise with. We can see the emotion on the face of this figure, and therefore we also can share in his grief. The figure is a ‘way in’ to the painting.
I often feel that the aria Nessun Dorma performs the same function in opera. How many of us, I wonder, have started to explore opera because of hearing a rendition of that song, perhaps by Luciano Pavarotti, Russell Watson, Al Martino or Mario Lanzo. I know, in my case, it was hearing Jussi Bjorling sing it that introduced to me, firstly further arias of his, but then full operas: he and his soaring version of that aria, was my ‘way in’ to opera.
I have always maintained affection for Turandot. In some ways I sort of collected Nessuns, from the plaintive but underpowered Miguel Fleta to the ridiculously long-held last note of Xiaojun Deng. But complete performances have always disappointed – I thought that this was, perhaps, an opera that has to be heard live – you have to be there to be wrapped up in its violent and rather unpleasant plot (the frustratingly brief extracts of Giovanni Martinelli or Daniele Barioni, live, perhaps endorse this). Even the complete recording of Jussi Bjorling failed to catch my imagination, even though there is some glorious singing to be found there.
So it was more for completeness that I bought the complete studio recording of Turandot with Francesco Merli, Gina Cigna and Magda Olivero. Let me tell you, once you have bought this recording, there is no need to buy any other. It is stunning, so much so (and I will honestly admit this) I have repeatedly played the Ping, Pang and Pong act, so well performed as it is, something I sometimes skip or use as an excuse to get a glass of wine.
This recording was not my first introduction to Francesco Merli, but it cemented for me what an astonishing tenor he was.
Here is the Signor Ascolta… Non Piangere Lui from that recording. Be prepared to have your breath taken away.
Merli’s voice is dark, even sonorous, but never unwieldy. Listen in the Non Piangere to him waiver his voice at the end of ‘questo’. Are we now in any doubt that this apparently heartless man loves Lui. And for such a dark baritonal voice the top notes ring out and are generously held, but not just because of playing to the crowd. Turandot is going to accept his challenge – he will make sure of that.
Perhaps Rosa Ponselle, slightly indirectly, should introduce my next extract:
‘You know, I don’t even remember Merli singing Gioconda at all… All I remember singing with him was L’amore dei tre re: that was unforgettable, even the rehearsals… Whew! I forgot myself around him, even in the rehearsals. I was a bad girl;…’
Unfortunately I cannot find that duet on-line, but here is Cielo e Mar from Gioconda, lest the rest of us should forget.
We are now in no doubt this voice is a true tenor voice. We can hear that agility again, he caresses the words; the phrasing is immaculate.
Why is Merli not mentioned in the same pantheon as Lauri-Volpi or Martinelli or Gigli? Well, he was unlucky with his roles at the Metropolitan (ill-health) and at Covent Garden (which is graveyard for many singers who do not fit the British sensibilities of the particular time) which restricted his fame to within Italy, with La Scala his base. But luckily there are quite a few recordings of his to be found.
Stella Roman has hailed Merli as the greatest Otello she ever appeared with, and as her partners included Vinay, Pertile and Martinelli, we should take note. It would be remiss of me to not include something from that work here.
Ms. Roman, you have a point. Tell me, gentle reader, are you not breathing a little quicker after listening to that – it is stunning piece of singing. And the words are sung, not shouted: the words are deeply felt; this is truly the singing of a broken man. Even in the last note of defiance do you hear him sharpen the note slightly, giving it an edge, a little bit of extra ferocity.
I always think, with the demanding repertoire that Merli sings, there has to be a sort of saving of resources for that last note. How many tenors have you seen hang around the back of the stage letting the chorus do all the work until running quickly to the front to deliver the final note of Di Quella Pira (let alone reprise it!). Merli has such surety in his voice and such technique he never feels the need to ‘save himself’. Listen to this aria from Guillaume Tell – those notes, given so freely, would shatter rock, let alone the odd chandelier or two.
Let me finish with an aria from La Forza del Destino that I believe encapsulates everything that is great about this singer. It is so easy for a singer such as this, with such weight of voice at his command, to go ‘over the top’, to ‘play to the gallery’. That can, of course, be exciting, and don’t think there isn’t a place for it. But Merli manages to be refined, yet at the same time exciting and emotional. He does not abuse the words and music, he heightens them. He is, truly, a great singer.