Francesco Merli held an important position among the Italian tenors of the interwar era. Gifted with a full, brilliant instrument between spinto and dramatic in weight, Merli sang the grand roles, impressing both audiences and his colleagues. Several of his leading ladies have recalled his stimulating performances with pleasure, citing his generosity of spirit and the thrilling effect of his top notes. He had the endurance to sing into his early sixties, still a brazen presence on the stage. His Metropolitan Opera appearances were unfortunate, poor health having diminished his capability and closing the door to further engagements there. His worth, however, was incontrovertible, supported by the evidence of several important recordings that captured his voice and art with considerable clarity.
After studies in his native city with Negrini and Borghi, Merli performed in secondary roles in 1916 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires before returning to Milan to sing Alvaro in Spontini's historical opera Fernand Cortez. Within two years, he had graduated to leading roles, being assigned Elisero in Rossini's Mose in Egitto in 1918 and performing Fausto in the premiere of Favara's Urania at La Scala. Merli remained a member of the company until 1942, gradually ascending to shared primacy with Aureliano Pertile in the spinto and dramatic repertories.
London heard Merli between 1926 and 1930. There, in a May 25, 1926, performance of Boito's Mefistofele (with Chaliapin), Merli's Faust was felt too vibrant, too invested with tremolo to give comfort to British ears. In Wolf-Ferrari's I giojelli della Madonna (Jewels of the Madonna), Merli was largely eclipsed by soprano Maria Jeritza's vivid performance as Maliella. Aside from being presented as London's first Calaf in 1927, Merli sang such other roles for London as Dmitri (Boris), De Grieux (Manon Lescaut), Radames, and Avito in Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re. Carping by the British press must be filtered through the prevailing preference for German artists whose use of vibrato was generally more sparing.
Merli's Metropolitan Opera career was briefer and even less productive. The tenor, who made his debut as Radames on March 2, 1932, was compromised by illness and, both there and as Edgardo (Lucia), Pinkerton, and Gabriele (Simon Boccanegra), failed to make a positive enough impression to win re-engagement.
Meanwhile, Merli was held in high esteem in his native Italy, where his temperament, regard for words, and blazing top notes were much to the taste of audiences. Fellow artists, too, had high regard for the tenor. Renata Tebaldi, as interviewed by Lanfranco Rasponi for his book The Last Prima Donnas, recalled Merli's Otello (at age 59) as "tender, anguished, tormented, and with a stupendous diction." The knowledgeable soprano Germana di Giulio, quoted in the same volume, noted, "Merli, at 56, his age when he sang Radames with me at La Scala, was still a miracle of sound technique." Stella Roman hailed Merli as the greatest Otello she ever appeared with and her colleagues had included Pertile, Martinelli, and Vinay.
Those who prefer a sanitized approach to the Italian dramatic tenor repertory may find Merli excessively intense, but those who value visceral performance cannot but be excited. Among Merli's finest roles on disc are Manrico (in Naxos' superb remastering of his La Scala recording), a shining Calaf with Gina Cigna and a tragic, tortured Canio.