Chris Merritt's tenor soars into greatness


Tenors are a passionate breed; many would kill to have a voice with a top like Chris Merritt's.

Yesterday afternoon in Shriver Hall when Merritt sang Tonio's first act aria -- the one with no less than eight high C's -- from Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," the tenor nailed those high notes with brilliance, charm and ease. All the more remarkable was that this was the singer's s fourth encore after a long and difficult program of operatic arias in a benefit for the Baltimore Opera Company.

Merritt is sometimes called "Mr. Rossini" because of his ability to negotiate that composer's high-flying pyrotechnics. For that side this singer, there was "Asile hereditaire," which concluded the printed program. This was indeed spectacular, impassioned singing. Quite properly, it brought the sold-out house down.

But there is more to Merritt than vocal acrobatics. For this listener, the two high points of the afternoon were Enee's aria, "Inutiles Regrets," from Berlioz' "Les Troyens" and Arrigo's "Giorno di Pianto" from Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani." The tenor, who is now 41, has made it clear in recent interviews that he wants to be remembered for more than vertiginous vocalizing; his singing in these two pieces suggested that he will be.

The singer has, of course, made Verdi's Arrigo very much his own. He's performed it at La Scala and at the San Francisco Opera and had made a fine recording of it. That experience showed. The performance was not only filled with tonal splendor -- his soft singing was as remarkable as the loud -- but also paid attention to details.

That this is a lyric tenor with genuine dramatic thrust was made all the more obvious in the Berlioz excerpt. This is dangerous territory for any tenor because the composer's Enee is a role identified with Jon Vickers, certainly the pre-eminent heroic tenor of the 1960 and '70s and perhaps of the entire post-World War II era. Comparisons are odious (and Vickers was incomparable), but Merritt tore into the notes, singing with enormous concentration, conviction and intensity. One never made comparisons or even thought "what remarkable singing"; the only response was "what amazing music!"

Merritt is not convincing in everything. The first two selections -- "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's "L'Elisir" and "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's "Boheme" -- were unsatisfying, even mannered. In these pieces, Merritt had an annoying tendency to attack notes from the bottom, swooping up to them in way that came close to crooning. Perhaps he had not sufficiently warmed up and, certainly, James Harp's overly subdued piano accompaniments did show his voice to its best advantage. The following selection, "La Donna e mobile" from Verdi's "Rigoletto," was much stronger -- if not as splendid as much of what was to follow.

It may be the case that Merritt is simply not at his best in purely lyric music and that he needs emotional and dramatic complexity for his singing to become fully engaged. All this listener knows is that he wants to be around when Merritt is ready to tackle Wagner's "Tannhauser" and Verdi's "Otello."

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