Francesco Merli (1887-1976) was born on a farm near Milan. He showed vocal ability at an early age, but did not pursue vocal studies aside from a few scattered lessons. His first job was as a janitor in a school. He entered a vocal competition sponsored by the conductor Cleofonte Campanini in 1914. He was awarded the second prize. The winner was Beniamino Gigli. His success in the contest resulted in arrangements for him to seriously study voice, but he was drafted into the army before he could begin.
After the end of World War I he made his La Scala debut in a leading role. He had appeared in the theater in a small part in 1916. This marked the beginning of an international career which brought him to virtually every important opera house in the world, though La Scala was the company with which he had the longest association. His Met appearances were limited to 10 performances in 1932. He was troubled by health problems at the time, returned to Italy, and never appeared in the US again.
Merli was likely the most important Italian dramatic tenor of the 20s and 30s. He sang all the big tenor roles; but he was best known for Calaf in Turandot and for his impersonation of Otello in Verdi’s version. He gave almost 300 performances in latter opera. He was the tenor lead in the first recording of Puccini’s last opera made in 1938. For the next 17 years it was the only recording of Turandot available. Listening to the complete opera on 78 rpm records was an heroic act. Just carrying the album was enough to ruin your back for life.
If you wish to hear the recording you can listen to it or download it in a manageable format at this link. Turandot Cigna Olivero Merli Gina Cigna was Turandot while the very young Magda Olivero was the slave girl Liu. Note that the final T in Turandot is not pronounced. The penultimate high note in ‘Nessun dorma’ is sung as Puccini wrote it – it gets just an eighth note. This recording was made only 12 years after the premiere of the opera and its performance practices are likely closest to what Puccini intended. In addition to appearing on the first recording of the opera, Merli was also the first Calaf in the Rome, London, and Sydney premieres of Puccini’s final work.
Merli’s sound had a dark baritonal timbre. He was able to shade and modulate his voice such that his singing was consonant with the meaning of the text and the intent of the composer. The quality of his voice was dramatic, but not seductive. I suspect that he sounded much better in the house than on records a phenomenon common to large voiced singers.
As mentioned above, Otello was the role he sang most often. This clip of Otello’s notoriously difficult and brief entrance in Act 1. It is from a live performance in 1939. The sound is awful, but it is still an informative documentation of the singer in front of an audience. Esultate
The Act 1 love duet is sung with Claudia Muzio, the great soprano who died the following year at age 47. It’s from a 1935 session. Both singers realize the sensitivity and restrained emotion of Verdi’s only love duet between man and wife. Gia nella notte densa – Muzio and Merli
Of course, marital bliss doesn’t last beyond the first act. Thereafter, Otello is consumed by unearned jealousy. Ora e per sempre addio explodes from the Moor shortly after Iago has insinuated that something about Desdemona may be off. By the time Otello utters Dio mi potevi scagliar in the third act he’s reached stage 4 derangement. Merli give an impassioned reading of the aria – maybe a little too much so. It’s a matter of taste.
Every heavyweight tenor, and many who aren’t, has to sing Di quella Pira from Il Trovatore. This excerpt is from a complete recording of the opera made in 1930.
O tu che in seno agli angeli from La Forza Del Destino was recorded in 1927. Merli gives the great solo a vigorous reading. The Improvviso from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier also receives a robust rendition.
Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci was a regular part of Merli’s repertoire. Vesti la giubba is taken from the 1929 complete recording of the opera. The clip includes the prefatory material to the aria. No! Pagliaccio non son is from the same complete recording. It starts from Canio’s entrance into the play within a play and goes to the opera’s conclusion. Merli says the famous last words. The pitch is off due to an incorrect rotational speed of the disc from which this digital version was made; this error is especially evident during the orchestral conclusion to the opera.
Merli retired in 1948. He spent the remaining three decades of his life teaching in Milan. While his recordings give an approximation of what he sounded like, the listener can only guess about the impression he made when heard in the theater. My suspicion is that he had a large voice that was impressive while still capable of nuance.