Robert Merrill defies the stereotype of the aged singer who relies on what Anna Russell lampooned as “Grrreat ahtistry” to compensate for a vanished voice.
The renowned baritone, who turns 72 in June, strode on stage at Marsee Auditorium at the South Bay Center for the Arts on Friday night and served immediate notice in Handel’s “Thanks Be to Thee” that his voice is in a remarkable state of preservation. Wontedly warm, ringing and steady at once, it only got better the more he sang.
This was all to the good because Merrill has never involved himself much with emotional meaning, textual nuance or refined musicality. It was always his sound that communicated, and it still is.
Understandably, not everything goes equally well now. The top of the voice is a matter of the moment. A high note emerging as a desperate woof in one phrase may be secure and splendid in the next.
The historic chasm between Merrill’s musical best and worst remains as ever: Mozart arias were unpardonably inept, those of Gershwin super.
Signature arias from “Barbiere di Siviglia” and “Carmen” no longer flow easily, even transposed down, yet aren’t so far from the current Met standard of much younger singers. Spirituals, “Fiddler on the Roof” and Irving Berlin medleys demonstrated vocal abundance and personal warmth.
Diligent accompanist Marion Merrill displayed musical affinities identical to her husband’s.