Robert Merrill
Arias, Songs, Spirituals, and Duets by Rossini, Verdi, Gounod, Thomas, Massenet, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Bizet, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Herbert, Franz L»har, Speaks, and Rasbach (with Licia Albanese and Dorothy Kirsten, sopranos)/RCA Victor Orchestra, Various Conductors/ Russ Case and his Orchestra.
Preiser 89501  (F) (ADD) TT: 77:25

As of the writing of this review, the great American baritone Robert Merrill is approaching his 83rd birthday and, sometimes, enjoying retirement. I use the modifier "sometimes" because even at this stage of his life, Merrill occasionally appears in concert—be it on the recital stage, or at Yankee Stadium for his familiar rendition of The Star Spangled Banner.

 Merrill was born Moishe Miller  June 4, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. Although he had aspirations for a professional baseball career, thanks to the urging of his mother he began vocal studies.  December 15, 1945, Merrill made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in a role that would become one of his mainstays—the elder Germont in Verdiís La traviata. The Violetta and Alfredo that evening were Licia Albanese and Richard Tucker, two singers who would remain Merrill's beloved friends and colleagues.  For the next thirty years, Merrill's career focused primarily, though not exclusively, on the Met (although the baritone did incur a brief exile by General Manager Sir Rudolf Bing for his participation in the Hollywood disaster Aaron Slick from Pumkin Crick). During that golden age, Met audiences were able to enjoy his glorious baritone in more than 20 roles and over 750 performances. His was certainly one of the most successful careers of any American singer in Met history.

Quite simply, Merrill possessed one of warmest and loveliest baritone voices of the century. It was also a voice of considerable power, and although he didn't possess the incredible upper register of  Leonard Warren (few, if any, did), his high notes offered plenty of point and ring. Coupled with these considerable vocal attributes was a flowing legato that could serve as a model for any aspiring singer. And, unlike many other singers, Merrill always treated his voice with the utmost respect, never pushing the instrument beyond its limits.

This Preiser CD offers a collection of some of Merrill's finest recordings from the early portion of his Met career (1946-1949). All of the positive qualities mentioned above are abundantly evident in each and every selection. And so, this CD is truly a feast for those who want to luxuriate in the sound of a glorious baritone voice, always employed with taste and musicality.

On the other hand, the various selections offer little in the way of unique insight or variety of characterization. In these recordings, Merrill is content to make his impression almost solely via the enviable beauty of his voice. That is true not only for the various opera excerpts in Italian and French, but the English-language song and operetta selections as well. The two Spirituals that close the CD do offer more involvement, but of the kind that belongs to a different, by-gone era. Given this sameness of approach, I found the CD better enjoyed a few selections at a time, rather than straight through.

The Preiser transfers of the 78rpm recordings are fine, revealing the warmth and beauty of Merrill's voice. For reasons that escape me, RCA has not yet seen fit to issue a recital CD featuring Merrill's early recordings, so this Preiser disc is probably your best opportunity to sample the American baritone in his early and considerable prime.

K.M. (April 2000)