Sunday, March 11, 2012
Robert Merrill: The Rolls-Royce of Baritones!
Like Beverly Sills, Jan Peerce, Helen Traubel, Lawrence Tibbett and so many others of the period, Merrill always had one foot in popular entertainment, especially Broadway, radio and TV. Today we think of opera singers as almost exclusively opera singers, but that was not really so at that time. Actually, I think the case could be made that opera and opera singing are at their healthiest and probably most popular—at least in this country—when they exist in the company of the popular arts. That cozy relationship was shattered for good, it seems, not by opera singers and opera enthusiasts, but by the extraordinary developments, post-Elvis, of a rock-driven American popular culture that simply has nothing at all in common with traditional arts like opera. It wasn't opera's fault. But that is another story, and another blog!
There is no good reason I can think of to waste your time or mine with a mini-biography of Robert Merrill. If you're reading a blog like this, it's safe to assume you already know a lot about opera singers. Merrill was so well-known that a simple glance at Wiki will tell you anything you may not already know about this popular American baritone. A trivia point—you may not know that he was a very accomplished semi-pro baseball player, and paid for his musical education at the beginning with money he made pitching in a semi-pro league! There is always something more to people: like the fact that Roberto Murolo, the grand master of Neapolitan song and song history, actually paid his way through college as a championship swimmer:-) You just never know.
It's all about Merrill's voice. His was one of the smoothest, most elegantly and easily produced of baritone voices. Here is an absolutely classic rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" that shows very well the perfection of his singing technique:
Now how is that for smooth! Absolutely perfect singing, as best I can judge. I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with Daniel Ferro, at Juilliard, one of the world's outstanding voice teachers. He compared Merrill's technique to the automatic gear-shifting of an expensive luxury automobile. He said you never notice the shift between registers; it is so smooth that it is like a perfect, steady progression. I don't think it can be said better.
Such smoothness and exemplary legato immediately suggest Valentin as a near ideal French role for Merrill, and indeed he was superb in such repertoire. Here is the much-loved aria "Avant de Quitter ceux lieux" in a live 1955 performance:
Again, the words that first come to mind are "smoothness," "legato," and "tonal consistency," all accompanied by a remarkably in-line transition to the upper register. It often comes as a surprise to realize that Merrill is sometimes singing Gs and even Abs as though they were part of the middle of his voice!
Finally, the one baritone aria that even those who know nothing of opera will know, Figaro's ultra-famous "Largo al factotum," staple fare of concerts, anthologies, singing textbooks and even cartoons!
Absolutely excellent! This cannot be faulted. I would call it a classic rendition—completely free of the extraordinary idiosyncrasies so frequently visited upon it by lesser talents. The Italian diction, which frequently gets muddled in the mouths of Americans, is pretty clean and clear here; as always, the register transitions are perfect, and the tonal consistency is absolute. That's the kind of singing that guarantees a very long career! And that indeed is what Merrill had—long, distinguished, profitable, and—not merely coincidentally—a lot of fun!
at 12:21 PM