I have been a fan of Chris Merritt's ever since I heard him as Leopold in a private recording of Halevy's La Juive, before the advent of CDs. His name was totally unfamiliar to me, but I was particularly impressed by the four musical numbers he was involved in, and especially by the high "E" in the serenade. (This recording is now available on CD: Legato-available from Lyric Distribution) I followed his career ever since, and went out of my way to obtain all his later releases. Since I have always had a particular interest in unusual repertory, I have been grateful to him for singing, and recording, so many rare and unusual operas--- first recordings of Ermione (two roles) and Bianca e Falliero or more complete versions of operas recorded previously (Armida, Zelmira, Emilia di Liverpool, and the Malibran version of I Puritani).
Yet, much as I like him myself, I was surprised at seeing some contrary reviews mixed in with the raves on some of his recordings. Granted, no singer is always at his or her best, which might explain an occasional adverse review. But it would not explain some of the negative reviews that his CD of Rossini and Donizetti arias, issued some years ago, have received. To go back to Merritt's CD, an extremely glowing review was penned by the editor of Opéra International, who awarded it a prize. You might also want to glance at my review of that CD: My review of CD. These reviews set me to thinking: "How can this be? Are tastes that different? What is it about one CD, a CD that is surely among my personal favorites, that causes some other reviewers, all individuals of good faith and good taste, for whom I have a great deal of respect, to be so negative?
I think that the answer is really quite simple. Different listeners look for different things in singers. The first to come to mind, listed in no particular order, are pure vocal beauty, squillo, perfect pitch, musicianship, the ability to caress a phrase, breath control, vocal range, dramatic ability, depth of feeling, vocal agility, seductive appeal, a personal style (or just singing "stylishly"), and the ability to lose oneself in the character that is represented on stage. Obviously, no singer possesses all these characteristics to the same extent. By the same token the requirements of different operas, even by the same composer, also vary. As a result, the same singer may come across much better in one work than in another. Finally, there may well be psychological factors involved. Some listeners, most probably those with a preference for sopranos, may simply not like big voiced tenors. Perhaps it irritates them when a tenor seems to dominate the soprano. Others may love tenors with large voices. I know it bothers me when a soprano comes across more forceful than a tenor in a duet. I happen to like it the other way around. Nothing right or wrong with any of these views, it's just that that's the way some people may feel.
It should also be remembered that the more individual a singer's style, the more likely he or she is to be controversial. There is very little that is truly controversial about singers with classically beautiful voices such as Caruso, Gigli, Di Stefano, Carreras, or Pavarotti. They will win the hearts of countless fans wherever they go.
But Chris Merritt's vocal beauty has a totally different quality than many italianate tenors. What is most apparent about Merritt's singing, other than his phenonemal range and almost acrobatic vocal agility is his ability to project great depths of feeling in dramatic music. In listening to him, one forgets the interpreter, and hears the hero (or villain) express his emotions. A good example is the Act IV aria from Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani, "Giorno di pianto". I have heard it sung by a number of famous tenors, but it was not until Merritt's version that I really sensed the "pianto" in it. And I never played anybody else's again. By the same token, I have always considered the Act I aria in Rossini's Otello to be a big bore, probably because I never heard it sung as it should have been. It is Merritt, and no one else, who can project the essence of the character. A final example is the aria from Donizetti's Poliuto, on the same Phillips CD as the Otello. Here, again, the second half of this aria, "Sfolgoro divin raggio" has been recorded any number of times. True, these recordings were out of context, which happens whenever a cabaletta is shorn of its' first, slow section. But several tenors did record both, and did so to no effect. It was not until I heard Merritt sing it that I understood why Poliuto had been a favorite role of so many nineteenth century tenors, from Adolphe Nourritt, who conceived but never sang it, to Gaetano Fraschini, Enrico Tamberlick and even Francesco Tamagno.
These are the qualities that make Merritt one of the outstanding tenors of the period. In fact. I can think of no tenor in the history of sound recordings who can do what he can in the Rossini "bari-tenor" repertory, and only of the legendary John O'Sullivan (and a few others such as Paoli, Palet, Tamagno, Gilion, Vezzani, Franz) in the French grand opera roles that Merritt has sung or should sing.