Tenor makes good, sings for home folks.

THIS JUST IN ...

March 21, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

Has it been noted anywhere - other than on page 15 of the Baltimore Opera's current program notes - that Chris Merritt, who gets his mail in Pikesville, is the only tenor to have opened La Scala two seasons in a row? (Sports metaphor: This is like Mike Mussina being named starting pitcher in the All-Star game two years in a row.)

La Scala, in Milan, is the hub of the opera universe. So we're talking prime time. And given how Italians, particularly those associated with opera, frequently engage in passionate arguments, the fact that they could settle twice in a row on this tall, fair-haired singer from the 21208 ZIP code says something grand about Chris Merritt. (It says he could probably be elected president of Italy.)

I'd like to further note that Merritt, who is 44 years old, has played the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Paris Opera, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, the Hamburg State Opera, Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and scores of other opera houses and concert halls. (Sports metaphor: This is like Edgar Prado, Maryland's leading jockey, being flown all over the world to ride thoroughbreds in stakes races.)

Merritt has not played Baltimore much. In fact, he hasn't been in an opera here since 1984. He's been just about everyplace else in the world since then, doing that thing he does, then flying back to Baltimore and Pikesville and his wife, Joan Coplan

Merritt, his daughter, Geri, and his son, Ryan.

I mention all of this because, for a limited time, Merritt is playing his adopted hometown again. He plays Manrico in the Baltimore Opera's production of "Il Trovatore" through the weekend. It's obvious why the world wants this guy - he has a fabulous voice, capable of high-wire acts, and impressive acting skills. His every moment on stage seems well crafted, not merely rehearsed. To say his performance of the aria "Di quella pira" was convincing is to demean it. Stunning is a better word; Merritt carried it off Wednesday night with the angry but controlled flourish it demands. (Like Ali finishing Foreman in the sixth round of The Rumble.)

As good as Merritt was in "Il Trovatore," as obvious his talent and as impressive his presence, he did not steal the show. But no one did. There were three excellent voices in the cast and two good ones - with Merritt, baritone Stephan Piatnychko and mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura in the former category. (Sports metaphor: It's like having Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro in the same infield.) It's an impression of growing numbers of people that Baltimore Opera improves with every season. Bringing Chris Merritt home is a giant step in that progress.

Baritones and books

And take my heads-up: Merritt returns to the Baltimore Opera next year with James Morris, one of the world's leading bass-baritones (and another guy with local connections), in "The Flying Dutchman." Plus, the gifted Mishura has the title role in "Carmen" in October. That ought to be one hot ticket. And one more for the future file: There's going to be a second Baltimore Book Festival. Watch for it in Mount Vernon Place again, %J weekend of Sept. 27. It's one of the best things to happen in the city in recent years.

Biting criticism of MBNA

When MBNA Corp. opens a regional headquarters in Hunt Valley next month, it's widely assumed that creating 3,000 jobs there will be a boon to local business, retailers in particular and Hunt Valley Mall retailers to be exact. But there's a guy with an upscale restaurant back in Wilmington, Del., site of MBNA's main headquarters, who complains that company policy keeps many of MBNA's 8,500 employees from roaming far enough from work to get lunch at his place.

Sean Reily, who owns Shipley Grill, also griped in a letter to MBNA President Charles Cawley that the company's in-house shops and restaurants undercut business at his restaurant and downtown retail establishments. The company said nonsense, according to Wednesday's Wilmington News Journal. "We've done many things to encourage people to go to Shipley Grill. They just don't want to go there," said an MBNA spokesman. Ouch.

Other merchants quoted in the News Journal gave mixed reviews to MBNA's presence in Wilmington. "We have gotten a lot of MBNA business," said the owner of Cavanaugh's, a downtown restaurant.

"I don't think I got four customers from there," said the owner of a shoe store that is closing at the end of the month.

Translation, please

Ponder this from the latest Almanac of American Politics, by Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa: "Maryland's genial tolerance may have given it a history a little too savory, but this state, perhaps because it is in so many ways typical, cherishes its sense of uniqueness." What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Thanks for the bluebirds

Anyone who's ever been lucky enough to see bluebirds flicker across a pasture - I saw some in northern Baltimore County just last week - should be grateful for the life of Woodrow Wilson Ford, whose obituary appeared in The Sun on Saturday. He built and deployed thousands of bluebird boxes in our region. He did it quietly and modestly, too. But maintaining an inventory of bluebird boxes wasn't the only way Ford served birds. Sometimes he'd stop his truck to pick up road kill. He'd take it home, spread it out in his backyard for the turkey vultures, pop a beer and watch the feast.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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