Chris Merritt

The tragic decadence of a voice in a short time can best shown by looking at the evolution of Chris Merritt between 1986 and 1990.

On February 28, 1986 Merritt sang in a performance of La donna del lago in Paris at the Châtelet. The cast, besides Merritt as Rodrigo, included Cuberli (Elena), Blake (Uberto), Valentini-Terrani (Malcolm), Dworchak (Douglas) with Lewis conducting. The performance started very well with some ravishing singing by Blake supported by Cuberli and exciting singing by Valentini-Terrani. Finally Merritt made his appearance after the chorus sung by the clan. When he uttered "Eccomi a voi, miei prodi, onor del patrio suolo", the impact was tremendous. The voice was powerful, attacking the notes cleanly and without strain. The leaps to the high notes were fearless. None of the high notes caused him grief. It was a stupendous performance. The ovation at the end of the aria was huge and seemed to last forever. The same impression was made during the subsequent long finale to the end of act one. Merritt dominated the ensemble effortlessly.

During the second act, this impression still persisted. The trio between Elena, Uberto and Rodrigo amazed by the sheer effortless vocal power displayed. It was too bad that Rodrigo had to die after that. The ovation, at the end of the performance, was extraordinary. Merritt's solo curtain call generated wild enthusiasm.

I awaited impatiently the LP of Merritt issued by Bongiovanni. Unfortunately, it was not at the same level as I expected. Some arias were excellent, while other ones showed strain and tired singing. Later, his singing of Arrigo in Vespri siciliani at La Scala generated hilarity and booing from the audience because of his ridiculous use of head voice at the wrong time. Further vocal deterioration was reported in Paris in Guillaume Tell. Arnold is a role not suited for the voice of many tenors and certainly not for Merritt.

On June 20, 1990, Merritt sang Arnold in Guillaume Tell at Covent Garden. The role of Arnold is known to be a tenor's graveyard. It deserves its reputation. It is a role that Thill, for example, had to abandon because of the strain on his voice. Besides Merritt as Arnold, the other principals were Cuberli (Mathilde), Yurisich (Guillaume), Lloyd (Gualtiero), Dean (Gessler), Lavender (Pescatore) with Plasson conducting. The performance started badly. The overture was a lackluster event. It looked like Plasson had taken a sleeping pill. Apparently the opera was sung in French. It could have been Chinese for all I know as the French diction of the cast was dreadful. The first to appear was Lavender as the Pescatore. The poor man did not have the high notes. In France a role like that was given to singers like Vergnès or Luccioni at the beginning of their career. It's sad to say that Lavender replaced Merritt once as Arnold later in the performance run. A friend of mine who came specially from Dublin without knowing Lavender was singing was quite furious at the turn of events.

Going back to the performance of June 20, the duet between Guillaume and Arnold was an undernourished affair. The baritone Yurisich had a voice, but no nobility. Merritt sounded small and his top was constricted. When one hears the records made by Slezak/Demuth, Fontaine/Noté, Affre/Noté, Affre/Rigaux of the duet, it sounded almost farcical. The duet of the second act with Mathilde (a small voiced Cuberli) was better suited to Merritt. However physically, he looked like a defeated warrior. The trio with Yurisich and Lloyd went for nothing, making no impression at all. Finally came the big moment for Arnold: Asile héréditaire. Merritt again sounded tired, constricted, off pitch and finished the aria with great pain to a small scale polite applause. Unfortunately it was not finished for him. He had to sing Amis, secondez ma vengeance. Merritt was finished. The final high C was inaudible. Instead of generating enthusiasm, it was received in almost total silence. The rest of the opera was brought to a boring close under the sleepy baton of Plasson. Merritt, after this extremely poor performance, decided to take a curtain call, not a wise move. He was unmercifully booed for his poor showing, what a contrast this was to the ovation he received four years earlier in Paris.

This decline is due to the fact that he sang roles (Arrigo, Arnold, others) not suited to him instead of singing the baritenor roles of Rossini where he is (was?) at his best. Now we hear about his last fiasco in Rusalka at the Met. To be fair, Tom Kaufman said that Merritt was fine in the Baltimore Trovatore with a ringing high C. Since then, I got a recording of the Pira: awful. However the judgement of Tom Kaufman cannot be trusted, as any tenors singing unknown belcanto operas are by definition good. In top of that, Tom Kaufman barely went to an opera house during his life. That outing in Baltimore was an exception. He prefers to stay home and listen to a CD, resulting in Tom Kaufman appreciating more the technical achievements of the recording engineer than a real voice heard live.

His die-hard supporters (like Clarissa Lablache) point out that he recently had a triumph in Moses and Aron. So what, singing Aron does not make you fit to sing Arnold. His latest compact disc of heroic belcanto arias shows a voice in decline, and some awful singing can be heard. A contradictory review of this CD was written by Tom Kaufman, who is actually deaf in one ear. There he has the guts to tell us that Martinucci is no Merritt. That's good for Martinucci, but this is not what Tom Kaufman meant.

Finally, there is no doubt in my mind that we have witnessed the dreadful decline of what started out as a wonderful talent. What a waste.

Sigurd in Montpellier, 1994

Merritt sang Sigurd in Montpellier in 1994. During a recent trip to Paris, I heard a tape of the performance. Merritt's singing was terrible. His entrance Princes du Rhin was a disaster. It must be heard to be believed. He is out of breath, overparted, and short at the top. During better times, Merritt would not have been allowed to continue the opera. Older public would have stopped him right there and would have continued interrupting the performance until he was gone.

Why Merritt did believe he could sing Sigurd and be proud of it, is a mystery.

During November 1997, Merritt attempted to sing Arnold again in San Francisco. It was a new fiasco. Finally when Merritt sang Arnold in Paris, a chorister, who had also sung during performances of the work with Tony Poncet in the 1960s, commented to the baritone Jacques Sullivan that Merritt was nothing compared to Poncet. Poncet himself was not a natural choice for the role as Poncet was a tenor demi-caractère with an easy top who was promoted to Arnold due to lack of a real heroic tenor.

The following is a review of his last Arnold in San Francisco by Daniel Shaindlin:

Despite my twenty years experience as a tenor, opera administrator, my childhood spent mostly backstage at the Met and my out of control passion for CDs of live opera, I am hesitant to post "reviews". I like to think that I know what I'm talking about but I find it generally frustrating to talk about voice without being able to demonstrate, either by singing or spinning a disc. Having said that (and I DON'T mean to sound arrogant re my credentials – I just want to make it clear that TENORS are my passion), I will make a tiny exception.
I attended Tell this Sunday at the San Francisco Opera. I love this opera. It makes me crazy, and I attend it whenever I can. I can only expect to see it a few times in my lifetime. It's my humble opinion that Tell should only be performed under festival conditions. It is too long – too hard to cast – it has far too many elements that have to be done to perfection. Anything less and you end up with five hours of sloppy opera.
First off. Tell has one of THE most impossible tenor parts ever written. It requires the type of tenor that no longer breathes. The "typical" Rossini tenor is NOT right for the part. It needs a Sullivan, a Gedda and DARE I say it – a Bonisolli. Gedda has attempted it only twice as far as I know. In the 70's he canceled a performance with OONY and Eve Queler and was replaced by Enrico di Giuseppe. Around that time he sang it in Florence with Marton and Mittleman and he transposed the big scena. If Gedda has to transpose something then you know it's impossible! Bonisolli sang a tacky and wild and wonderful performance in New York in 81 with OONY, complete with encore! Anyway, these were big voices, capable of punching out the recits, singing with the proper voix mixte and slamming the high C's.
I have never been a Merritt fan per se, but five years ago when he did Tell in SF I went and I was perplexed. He had the style of the recits down pat and there was plenty of voice for them. Loud, darkish and exciting. When it cam to the big numbers, he resorted to a mix on the high notes. It was cheating, and I was disappointed because I have heard him on tape and disc, sing the high notes in "chest". Since then I have watched and listened to the voice get uglier and uglier. I was surprised last season, to see the posts of his performance in the Met's Rusalka. I thought, how bad could it be?
Based on Sunday's show – BAD INDEED. I've NEVER HEARD ANYTHING LIKE IT. First, he looks like W. C. Fields. He really does. When he opened his mouth, I thought it was a joke. He has actually damaged his cords (IMHO). This is a damaged voice. The middle is still biggish, the style of the recits even better then five years ago, but the sound! A frightening wobble, constriction – the voice is swallowed one second, pinched the next and fine right after that. The Cs in the act one duet were on the money, plenty of chest and he attacked them with ease. The passaggio however was a mess. He gets through that part of the voice by ridding his voice of any vibrato – pure straight tone and nasal and pinched. It only got worse as the performance went on. His acting consisted of stand and deliver. No direction at all. On one hand I want to applaud him for being able to get through the part at all, while singing Loge in Europe! On the other hand, I hope to never hear him again. His fans that stand by him are either good loyal people or deaf idiots.
Patricia Racette as Mathilde. An interesting artist. A good voice, plenty of volume. She is in vocal distress however. Her act two aria was a trial. She can't sing piano and any attempt to do so brought the pitch down about a quarter step. One volume – under pitch. Not good. The audience seemed to like her the most. When in doubt, applaud the soprano!
Jean-Phillipe Lafont as Tell was a real surprise. I have heard only good things about him. He is ALL wrong for the role of Tell. He displayed a voice of some size, an even bigger wobble then Merritt's and no sense of phrasing or legato. The voice is ugly and sounds like a Wagnerian gone wrong. None of the smaller roles were terrible or wonderful. It's hard to imagine that he is recording Falstaff with Gardiner! The ballets were endless.
The conducting was ponderous and under energized. To compare the overture with say... the Toscanini recording, where the violins sound like they're about to fall off their chairs with excitement... well... it was routine. His tempi made a long show even longer. Many flubbed notes from the brass.
The sets were minimalist. They were not offensive, they were not inspired. SFO can't seem to find a designer with any ideas – last year's Hoffmann being an exception. So thanks anyway to SFO for trying to put on an impossible piece. I attempted to mount a concert performance of Tell at Carnegie Hall in the late eighties. We had a great cast... a tenor who at the time was capable of singing his part without flinching – he agreed to a fee – then wanted more than we could give. I had to drop the project. Merritt fans won't be dissuaded, but if we have come to this – where a voice that is so obviously in distress passes unnoticed... well... it's sad.
Now I know this makes me sound super negative – but WHY do SFO audiences think it's funny to boo the bad guys during the curtain calls? It is so tacky and provincial and I am sure, confusing to the singers. What is this? Vaudeville?????
Dan Shaindlin

Merritts cancels Gurrelieder in Houston

The Houston Symphony Orchestra announced back during the fall of 1997 Chris Merritt to sing Waldemar in Schönberg's Gurrelieder at a concert on May 16, 1998 at Jones Hall. This was a task impossible for the type of voice Mr. Merritt has. He would have had to overcome an orchestra of over 120 musicians. Only a real Wagnerian tenor could master that job, and Merritt is not one. I do not know if he got cold feet or was really sick, but he cancelled wisely. He was replaced Jon Fredric West, a Wagnerian tenor of repute, having sung recently and successfully Tristan in Vienna. West displayed enormous lungpower to overcome the overpowering orchestral sound unleashed by Eschenbach. The whole of evening was a huge success thanks also to Marina Shaguch, Michelle deYoung, Jon Kolbet, Alan Held and the veteran Ernst Haefliger who was excellent as the Narrator in spite of his advanced age. We are thankful to Mr. Merritt to have stayed out of the Gurrelieder. He should have done the same thing with Arnold.

Roberto Marcocci's opinion

I heard Merritt a few times in Italian opera houses. The first time was in a recital at the Municipale in Modena (I suppose around 1983/84, but I'm not sure). He was really fantastic. The second time was in a performance of Zelmira at the Fenice in Venice (only one performance for the recording of the opera). That was one of the most incredible performances that I heard in my life. He sang in a wonderful way and was a real baritenor singing with bass and central notes like a real baritone and high notes as a Rossini tenor. But I think that this performance was the beginning of his end. He destroyed the passaggio between the registers, and his voice was ruined. I saw him in Bologna in Puritani, but he was sick, and also another time in Puritani (may be in Florence, I forgot). In 1988, I saw him in Guglielmo Tell at the opening of La Scala (during the period 1983–1988, I attended the opening of Scala – Turandot, Nabucco, Carmen, Aida, Don Giovanni, Guglielmo Tell – but I stopped to do so because the price of the ticket and the difficulties to find tickets – 36 hours in line – were to high compared to the qualities of the performances). I hope my opinion is clear. I loved Merritt in the recital. In Zelmira he was great and incredible, but the Zelmira performance was the beginning of the end.
Roberto Marcocci

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