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Robert Merrill

by Stefan Zucker

Gifted with a powerful, resonant and biting voice, Robert Merrill is supposed to have quipped, “When in doubt, sing loud.” In fact, he almost never sang any way but loud. He had a plangent sound but frequently sang as if by rote, failing to communicate rhythmic pulse, much less musical ebb and flow or feeling for drama in music. For him the basic unit of utterance was the note, not the phrase. The notes themselves stayed more or less at the same volume and thus lacked dynamic direction. As a result he couldn’t prepare emphases with crescendos. This, combined with his tendency to treat legato passages as if they were declamation and to substitute bluster and cliched snarls for emotional substance, caused much of the music he sang to sound jagged. Nevertheless, his legato was excellent, for he was able to join notes together seamlessly (unlike many Americans who habitually disrupt legato passages with sudden, quick diminuendos before the consonants d and t).

Merrill seemingly was without conscience regarding preparation and seldom lived up to his artistic best. Once, after he sang “Di Provenza” on television, the host unexpectedly asked him to repeat the piece. Merrill kept shouting “Words! Words!”—until the teleprompter was turned back on. At a Met Trovatore a member of the audience sarcastically yelled the words to him. Merrill was particularly inaccurate in rests, often shortening them, so that the music couldn’t breathe properly. In an Otello performance, whenever he had to enter over an orchestral tremolo, he came in any old time—he simply didn’t bother to count. More often than not he was unprepared, gluing himself to the prompter. Even so, he may have sung more wrong notes and words than any other leading post-war singer.

On records from the 40s and early 50s he often is marginally under pitch and, in Italian arias, plain boring. In “Cortigiani,” whenever he musters some feeling, as at the words “Marullo, signore,” he fails to sustain it. Elsewhere, he has episodes where he interprets or is animated—but they usually don’t last. A notable exception is Thaïs’s death scene, with Dorothy Kirsten, recorded in 1947, where he sings with passion. Merrill’s most successful early recordings are of light songs in English, in which he sounds fully at home with words and music. His best, “The Green Eyed Dragon,” was made around 1949 (but it pales in comparison with John Charles Thomas’s rendition). When Merrill does vary his sound here, as in another song, “Shadrack,” it is with inflections seemingly borrowed from Lawrence Tibbett. Merrill recorded a number of duets with Jussi Björling—and it is to him that you end up paying attention.

By 1963, when Merrill recorded Ford’s monolog from Falstaff, the voice had become bass tinged to the point that it was a dramatic baritone, suitable for heavy Verdi roles. By then, too, he had stopped sounding like an outsider to Italian opera and was not only vocally but also emotionally powerful throughout such selections as “Urna fatale.” By the late 60s, however, his musicianship had become even more slipshod, his performance in a 1972 Met Don Carlo being particularly egregious. Still, he remained memorable in the highly declamatory part of Amonasro.

As an actor on stage Merrill was wooden and without the appearance of spontaneity. As the Toreador he had no pizzazz. As an actor with the voice, even at his best he didn’t have Leonard Warren’s or Giuseppe De Luca’s ability to underscore the meaning of words, while as a vocal personality he lacked the latter’s warmth and humanity. Merrill’s diction was better than Warren’s, who, however, had a beautiful pianissimo.

With these liabilities what enabled Merrill to become—and remain—a star? Particularly in the middle voice he had an imposing sound uncharacteristic of American baritones. Performing light music in concert and on radio, television and film made him famous throughout the U.S. (although he never achieved international stardom).

Merrill’s opera career was based at the Met, where loudness counts for a lot. In the 50s he was in Warren’s shadow. By the early 70s Sherrill Milnes got most of the plum assignments. Merrill was, however, the leading American baritone of the 60s.

Merrill did sing with a wide variety of inflections in “largo al factotum,” on Great Moments in Opera.

This article, written in 1991, is reprinted from The International Dictionary of Opera and The St. James Opera Encyclopedia, with additions and minor changes.