Francesco Merli (1887-1976) was born into a family of humble means on a farm just outside Milan. The young man began his working life as a school janitor but always displayed a talent for singing. Merli had a few scattered voice lessons over the years, but never completely took his singing seriously. However, in June of 1913, the Milan City Council sponsored a concert at the Teatro dal Verme, intended to encourage musical education in the city’s schools. As a school janitor who was popular with students, Merli was asked to participate in the program. With two other vocalists, he sang the trio from Verdi’s I Lombardi, impressing all in attendance with his powerful voice. So impressed was the city council, that they promoted Merli from school janitor to janitor of the municipal offices!
Perhaps the honor of sweeping floors at Milan’s government buildings was not quite the result Merli was expecting, for he began to turn his attentions more and more to singing. When famed conductor and impresario Cleofante Campanini organized an international competition for young singers in Parma the following year, Merli entered. He took first prize in the division for dramatic tenors and second prize overall. Coincidentally, the top prize was awarded to a fledgling tenor from Recanati…Beniamino Gigli. Merli’s rise to fame was not a smooth one, however. At the time of the aforementioned competition, he was essentially a natural singer with no real technique. A sponsor (Tullio Serafin’s brother) arranged for a stipend to be provided that would allow Merli to take a one year leave of absence from his city janitorial duties. Arrangements were also made to pay for the young tenor’s vocal studies. However, this good fortune came to a grinding halt when Merli was conscripted into the Italian Army. He continued vocalizing in the trenches and, according to an entry in his diary, entertained both his comrades and the enemy Austrian soldiers while singing “Cielo e mar” at the front lines!
Merli came through the war unscathed and made his debut toward the end of 1916 in the small role of Alvaro in La Scala’s production of Spontini’s Fernand Cortez. In the fall of 1918, he made a second debut at La Scala, this time in the more substantial role of Elisero in Rossini’s Mosč in Egitto. This was the beginning of a long association with this prestigious theater. It also marked the start of a major international career for the tenor. Over the course of the next thirty years, Merli appeared in the major theaters of Verona, Florence, Palermo, Naples, Padua, Trieste, Rome (singing Calaf in the Roman premiere of Turandot), London (he was also Covent Garden’s first Calaf), Sydney (yes, he was the first Calaf there, too), Melbourne, Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires and New York. His Met debut came on March 2, 1932 as Radames in Aďda. However, after singing only eight performances of four operas, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Simon Boccanegra and Madama Butterfly (as well as a pair of concerts), Merli was taken ill and had to return to Italy. Sadly, he never again returned to the U.S.
Merli’s repertoire was vast, encompassing over 40 roles in such works as Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, Siberia, Andrea Chénier, La Fanciulla del West, Manon Lescaut, Turandot, La Gioconda, Carmen, Samson et Dalila, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Fidelio, La Forza del Destino, Ernani, I Lombardi, Il Trovatore and, what was considered his greatest triumph, Otello. He sang nearly 300 performances as the Moor, culminating in a final Otello in Trieste in 1946. The veteran tenor retired two years later and devoted himself to teaching during the final three decades of his life. Merli passed away in Milan in December of 1976, just six weeks shy of his 90th birthday.
Francesco Merli’s recorded legacy, preserved on scores of discs made for Columbia between 1926 and 1937, includes a complete recording of Il Trovatore and the very first complete recording of Turandot. These recordings reveal a sturdy, well balanced dramatic tenor, capable of explosive top notes as well as some truly delicate singing. In this recording, Merli sings the finale to the opera Pagliacci, beginning with Canio's entrance in the commedia. Joining Merli are Rosetta Pampanini (1896-1973) as Nedda, Carlo Galeffi (1884-1961) as Tonio, Giuseppe Nessi (1887-1961) as Beppe and Gino Vanelli (1896-1969) as Silvio. This recording is part of the complete set of Leoncavallo's opera recorded in Milan for the Columbia label in February of 1929.