Chris Merritt, a leading tenor of Italian bel canto opera, returned to a Baltimore synagogue last night and as the cantor said, brought a fine Hanukkah gift two days early.
Merritt sang sweetly and strongly but not only the famous lyrical Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini canon he's making his cornerstone. In a nearly sold-out Beth El Congregation recital, Merritt showed he could be just as effective, and in some cases more emotional, by singing a lovely soft ending as in Henri Duparc's "Soupir" or a pleasant Rossini melody, "La Promessa." Neither has the big crowd-pleasing high C's often heard in bel canto.
Two of Merritt's most beautiful renditions of full-fledged singing came in two non-bel canto pieces, both standards. Perhaps his sweetest high note of the evening was his tender ending of "Salut! Demeure Chaste Et Pure," concluding a fine performance of the Gounod aria from "Faust." Merritt saved the elderly warhorse, "Che gelida manina," from Puccini's "La Boheme" for his second and final encore in a spell-binding end to 16 arias and songs in more than 90 busy minutes.
The audience of more than 1,200 loved it all, especially the big numbers like "Una Furtiva Lagrime" from "The Elixir of Love" by Donizetti and the nine high C's of "Pour Mon Ami" from Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment," as well as the Gounod and Puccini. Merritt chose Aileen G. Hammerman as his piano accompanist. It was the annual Cantor's Concert of her husband, Saul Z. Hammerman, cantor at Beth El for 38 years.
Merritt's high notes are often breathtaking and always powerful -- so strong, that unfortunately some of them last night produced noticeable echoes that seemed to bounce around in the back of the sanctuary. A hum in the building also affected the full appreciation of his music a few times. That mattered little to the happy audience hearing Merritt in his first big Baltimore recital. He sang at a smaller recital in 1984 at the late Rosa Ponselle's former home, Villa Pace. That year he also sang with the Baltimore Opera Company in Rossini's "La Cenerentola".
Merritt's Beth El concert was recorded for future broadcast by WBJC. On Dec. 12, 26 and 29, he continues his appearances in the Metropolitan Opera run of Rossini's "Semiramide" in New York. For his Dec. 29 matinee performance, 35 Baltimore family members and friends are going on a bus chartered by Kate Coplan, aunt of Merritt's wife Joan Coplan Merritt, a Baltimore mezzo-soprano. In January, Merritt sings in a rare recital at La Scala in Milan. Back in New York, he opens at The Met in Bellini's "I Puritani" March 21.