Lovers of the human voice cannot afford to go without this CD. At his vocal prime, Robert Merrill's voice was so beautiful that it could make you faint. The eight arias on this disc are like eight chapters in a textbook on the art of singing. The only disappointing thing about this collection is that it devotes too much time to material that other singers were better suited for. This is particularly frustrating when the surface of Merrill's early operatic discography has barely been scratched. (Where, for example, is the final duet from Thaïs with soprano Dorothy Kirsten? Recorded in 1947, like much of the other material on this CD, it presents both singers at their glorious, passionate peak.)
With his full, caressing tone, suave phrasing, and excellent pitch, Merrill was born to sing the Drinking Song from Thomas's Hamlet and "Vision fugitive" from Massenet's Hérodiade. In the former, Merrill accomplishes the unusual and captures the fatal sadness that lurks behind the title character. The latter, according to Pearl's copywriter, is "named by many collectors as the most beautiful baritone recording ever made." I am not sure that I would go that far, but it is impossible to resist singing like this. "Adamastor, re dell'onde profonde" from L'Africana and the Toreador Song from Carmen are done with jaunty bravado, and what an engaging Figaro Merrill was, as shown by his recording of "Largo al factotum." His heart-pounding cantabile singing is demonstrated by "Di Provenza il mar" from La Traviata and "Zaza, piccolo zingara" from Leoncavallo's otherwise forgotten Zaza. Only "Nemico della patria" from Andrea Chenier finds Merrill not quite inside the character, although it is as beautifully sung as everything else on the disc.
Three spirituals ("Jonah and the Whale," "Down to the rivah," and "Shadrach") are not improved by the Hollywood-style arrangements; Merrill sings the hell out of them, but more simplicity from everyone would have been more to the point. Merrill also sings some faded parlor music ("Invictus," "The Blind Ploughman," "Drink to me only with thine eyes," and "In the gloaming"), pallid Friml ("Ma Belle" from The Three Musketeers) and something called "Juanita." If anyone is going to make this music memorable, if it's not John Charles Thomas it's Robert Merrill, although I don't think anyone has been sitting around waiting for these numbers to come back into the repertoire! Most freakish of all is Kleinsinger's 12-minute Brooklyn Baseball Cantata, which I am sure has a cult following, but not in this house.
These recordings were made in 1946 and 1947 - the singer was barely 30. Roger Beardsley's transfers from Victor shellacs are excellent, and Tully Potter's appreciation of the singer gives credit where credit is due. Long live Robert Merrill!
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle