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Recalling Robert Merrill (1917 - 2004)

 


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RECALLING ROBERT MERRILL (1917 - 2004)

--Geoffrey Riggs


At the end of the day, I'm still baffled, even after all these years, whenever I hear in the hall any technique that is so relaxed and open, yet unblary, that the tone itself becomes seemingly freed of any connection with the singer. The tone assumes a corporeality of its own. Literally. It seems to be emanating from the hall itself, not just from the individual many yards away down there on that stage. The sensation is not that of a sound that is _deliberately_ loud or pushed in any way. Rather, it is just _there_. The sensation is of an unaggressive sound that is just....._everywhere_. And this is what happened when Robert Merrill sang.

A few, a very few, other singers have given me the same sensation, sometimes on certain notes rather than throughout the range. And the size of the voice has less to do with this sensation than the ease of the tone. Merrill achieved this eery sense of "separateness" throughout the range. So did Sutherland. But, surprisingly, Nilsson, for example, did not. Instead, the attack on certain higher notes ("Nun denn, allein") would impact right in one's face like a bullet. It was thrilling, but one was aware of a human agent expending commendable -- and deftly focused -- effort. The same was true of the high notes of other keenly focused voices like Tucker's. But the sensation that the hall was "making" the sound, even when the tone itself might not strike one as unduly loud, happened more with certain notes from Corelli and Vickers. I don't pretend to account for this difference.

Since plain power of voice is obviously not the determinant, it may instead be a function of psychological approach. Who knows? There may be an "image" in the singer's mind that is so direct that the "sound" is already there before it's "ushered" into the hall by the singer's modest opening of his mouth -- a mere technicality? The "sound" is there all along?

Yes, this is all pretty fanciful, but I'm describing eery sensations anyway, and certain highly gifted singers may have illogical sensations of their own that help relax the tone and make it flow......er........away from them, so to speak. (I believe it was Bjoerling who once remarked that, when he was feeling at his best, he would have a sensation as if all the tones were out there in front of him, not inside him at all; sadly, I came to opera three years too late to hear him in person.)

Today, Stephanie Blythe gives me that sensation of tone emanating everywhere. It is plain, in any case, that here is an artist whose approach to singing is utterly relaxed. One does indeed get the impression that the tone is always there; she merely has to "release" it; muscular manufacturing of the tone in the act of producing it seems (illogically) unnecessary and (illogically) beside the point. No, this doesn't make any sense at all. But it parallels precisely the experience of hearing Merrill's singing in person.

Among today's baritones, that sense of the tone being gently "ushered" in and being given liberty to wander around the auditorium unfettered and unattached is most keenly recalled in Thomas Quasthoff, IMO. Others have already spoken/written of a certain spiritual element when this man sings. It seems freed of ego. The voice has been appropriated by the music, and what the music wants, the voice just does.

But there's something plainly physical here as well. The evident concentration in Quasthoff's singing translates into such a focus on a steady conception of _tone_, pure and simple, that it almost seems the physical act of planting the music in the voice has all taken place before the concert has even started! The tones are all in place, they merely have to be "played"! I never thought I'd get this sensation from any other baritone after hearing Merrill. But the first thing I thought when I first saw Quasthoff, and heard these tones with no _apparent_ muscular manipulation flowing away from Quasthoff altogether and emanating from the seats around me, was "Merrill!"

Finally, there's a telling description of a Melba high note, the concluding high note for Mimi at the end of "O soave fanciulla", that a few here may already know, but I can't help thinking that there is a family resemblance between this Melba description and what some of us experienced when hearing that Merrill _sound_. So it seems appropriate that we end with that:

"The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden; it left Melba's throat, it left Melba's body, it left everything and came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite. I have never heard anything like it in my life, not from any other singer ever. It just rolled over the hall of Covent Garden. My God, how beautiful it was! ..... That note was like a ball of light. It wasn't attached to anything at all--it was out of everything." -- Mary Garden

Brava Nellie Melba -- and Bravo Robert Merrill and Thank you.

 

--Geoffrey Riggs

 

MARIA CALLAS (1923 - 1977) -- HER BEST RECORDINGS IN GOOD SOUND

CARMEN -- FROM COMEDY TO TRAGEDY

ENRICO CARUSO (1873 - 1921) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

FRANCO CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS

DON CARLOS -- RANDOM JOTTINGS

DONIZETTI AND BRINKMANSHIP

GREATEST SINGER?

THE TENOR AND RICHARD WAGNER (1813 - 1883)

MEISTERSINGER ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

PARSIFAL ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

HISTORY OF OPERA IN MINIATURE

RICHARD TAUBER (1891 - 1948) -- A BRIEF APPRECIATION

VIOLETTA IN LA TRAVIATA

PARTIAL OVERVIEW OF TRISTAN ON CD

IL TROVATORE ON DISC -- THE STRONGEST ENTRIES

UPCOMING SINGERS

 

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The Assoluta Voice in Opera, 1797 - 1847 NEW BOOK

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BAYREUTH BROADCASTS 2003 INTERNET RADIO FOR SIMPLETONS | INTERNET RADIO FOR TECHIES

THE COLLECTOR'S GUIDE TO OPERA RECORDINGS & VIDEOS | REVIEWS: BY OPERA TITLE BY COMPOSER THE COLLECTOR'S GUIDE TO BOOKS ON OPERA | FAVORITE OPERA LINKS

SIGN OUR GUESTBOOK | VIEW GUESTBOOK
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