Memories from the 1990 Met Semiramide cast: Chris Merritt

Q. Your appearance as Idreno at the Met was not the first time you had sung this role, from what we understand. Apparently you did it in Hamburg in 1985. Was that a concert version, or was it staged?

-Yes, the first time I sang Idreno was indeed at the Staatsoper Hamburg. It was also my debut at the Staatsoper. I was second-cast to Francisco Araiza. The other cast members were Monserrat Caballe, Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey in concert performances conducted by Henry Lewis. The next time I sang Idreno was, again, in concert performances of SEMIRAMIDE at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London…the year was 1986 . My cast mates were June Anderson (I believe it was her Covent Garden debut), Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey. Again, conductor was Henry Lewis.

Q. Were there any major musical changes to the role between the time you did it in Hamburg and when you performed it at the Met?

-Actually, not really.  Each time I have performed in SEMIRAMIDE, it has been with the group of Rossini-family…this being the musicians, conductors, singers, directors, accademics…who always gave-and-give the utmost care and respect to the magnificent Rossini compisitions, insisting on performing the complete compositions.

Q. Idreno’s part is too often cut. The reason given is that what is left out is not central to the drama. Of course it’s understandable that there are time constraints on a theater, but perhaps it is sometimes the decision of a director rather than a conductor? Any thoughts on this.

Well, as it turns out, there was a kind of situation at the Met. After we had finished one of the full run-throughs, there was a meeting called for the cast with conductor and director, in Liszt Hall (I guess it is still called that?). Although it was thought to be a *notes* meeting, it turned out to be a concerned discussion by the conductor, James Conlon. His concern was that it would be necessary to make some cuts.  However, I don’t really remember that the subject of time-restraint was mentioned. At any rate, he ended his comments by asking if any of us would be willing to have their music altered. I had the destinct feeling that all eyes of the *powers-that-be* were glaring at me, waiting for me to offer one of my arias. When the silence became almost too much, just like one of the conquering heros she has so often portrayed in her legendary career, our dear Marilyn spoke up, saying that she would be very loathe to advise that ANYONE’S music be sacrificed…not to mention, Rossini’s!!! Nothing else was said. We performed the opera in complete form.

Q. Philip Gossett in his NYTimes article of 1990 proclaimed that the cast was made up of “four of the world’s greatest Rossini singers: Lella Cuberli Marilyn Horne, Chris Merritt and Samuel Ramey.” Did that praise from one of of the greatest Rossini experts of our generation cause extra pressure for your Met debut?

I’m sure it would have if I had known Philip had said that!!! However, I think I had just about the maximum pressure level possible. As you mentioned, it was my debut at the Met…a very long and hard fought-for occasion. The Met NEVER wanted me to perform there, at all. It was Marilyn Horne who demanded that I be included in the cast. And that brought about its own pressure. The original project was actually thought of for BIANCA E FALLIERO which we had performed in the now legendary production at the Rossini Opera Festival, a breathtakingly beautiful production by Pier Luigi Pizzi. Marilyn wanted to have the Met bring it to New York. Indeed, general manager Bruce Crawford came to one of our Pesaro performances in 1986. Marilyn was very excited about this project and, during one of our performances, she told me about Crawford coming and that it looked like that production would be going to the Met. Adding to this, she announced to me that I would be included!! I was thrilled and honored.

However, after much time and negotiation, BIANCA E FALLIERO turned into SEMIRAMIDE  To be completely honest, I have to admit that I was somewhat less enthusiastic about performing the role of Idreno as my Met debut.  I have never really cared for performing the role and I like the role of Contereno in BIANCA E FALLIERO much better. But, I had promised Marilyn to do this project with her and I was determined to honor that promise.

There are other twists and turns in the tale of this project…to many to be able to recount, here. Just let me say that, by the time of the premier of SEMIRAMIDE and considering all the chapters in this story…I felt pleanty of pressure.
Q. In Gossett’s book “Divas and Scholars” he discusses the fact that Idreno’s part was NOT cut for the Met performances. It made for a long opera, but people there didn’t seem to mind. Do you feel that opera goers were more accustomed to sitting still in those days than they are today?

I’m not sure. I mean…there are very long Wagner operas, Berlioz operas, Verdi operas, all of which are still being performed now as they always have been. 

Q. You had sung with Marilyn Horne at Carnegie Hall in Tancredi some years before. Had you sung with Sam Ramey before?

Actually, those performances of TANCREDI were in 1983 and marked my Carnegie Hall debut.  As it turns out, 1983 also marked my Paris Opera debut at the gorgeous Palais Garnier, performing the role of Amenofis in the french version of Rossini’s opera MOISE, conducted by George Pretre and directed by Luca Ronconi.  My colleagues were Shirley Verrett, Cecilia Gasdia, Jean-Philipe Lafont and…..SAMUEL RAMEY as Moise.  It was the first time we had sung together.

Q. Do you have some specific memories of those historic performances?

Many…but my most vivid memories are of how sumptuous and beautiful the production is. The sets, the costumes…so gorgeous…directed by our beloved John Copley, sets by John Conklin and costumes designed by Michael Stennet. Just stunning!
Rossini America would like to thank Chris Merritt for sharing these memories with us. He is a member of the American Rossini Society as well as the honorary board of the Friends of the Rossini Opera Festival.