SHERRILL MILNES

by LOUISE T. GUINTHER

opera news
Photographed in Tampa by Dario Acosta at Carol Morsani Hall
© Dario Acosta 2008
JOHN ADAMS
NATALIE DESSAY
RENÉE FLEMING
MARILYN HORNE
For the generation of fans lucky enough to have come of age, operatically speaking, during the Sherrill Milnes era, the bar for baritones was set permanently at an all but unattainable height. Milnes was an American idol in the most admirable sense of the term - a "complete package" long before the expression came into vogue - and for many of us he left an indelible mark on every role we heard him sing.

His was the rare international career made entirely in the U.S.A. While other American singers went abroad in search of stage experience and exposure, Milnes honed his skills on his native soil: his galley years were spent with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and on tour with the Goldovsky Opera Theater in small towns across the country - a period he remembers as "my Fulbright Scholarships." The beginning of his Met career (he made his dazzling debut, as Valentin in Faust, in the last season of the old house) overlapped with his tenure at City Opera, and he was an established star at home by the time he bowed in the great houses of Europe.

Milnes's voice - lean, muscular, powerful, yet somehow richly lyrical too, and capable of the utmost tenderness - seemed a perfect fit for a vast range of sharply drawn characterizations of imposing strength and seething passion. His instrument was flexible not only in terms of technique and style but in its ability to reflect in sound the variegated emotional landscape of roles ranging from heartless villains to conflicted father figures to angry rivals to impetuous ideologues. Paradoxically, this chameleonic vocal quality remained instantly recognizable and distinct. The last in a line of great American Verdi baritones, he admired his predecessors Lawrence Tibbett, Robert Merrill and Leonard Warren and shared certain of their musical virtues, but no one could ever have mistaken him for any of them. His upper extension was sui generis: the way he soared into the vocal stratosphere was a mind-boggling feat of aerial derring-do.

Listening to Milnes in his prime, one heard a seemingly effortless outpouring of stunning range and volume, but in fact, that memorable Milnes sound did not come easy. The term "spinto" might have been invented for him: the energy and drive required to create that rock-solid column of sound produced a thrilling tension of line that made every phrase sound inevitable and right. While he excelled at the sadistic villains of the operatic lexicon (Iago, Scarpia) there was compassion, humor and nobility aplenty for more sympathetic figures such as his deeply human Simon Boccanegra, his buoyant Barbiere Figaro, his impassioned Rodrigo - and it was as the more three-dimensional antagonists of the canon that his artistry reached its peak. The self-lacerating reflections of Carlo Gérard had the ring of passion and truth - a heroic soul tormented by the awful recognition of his sins; his Rigoletto, twisted and deformed, overflowed with naïve, uncomplicated devotion when he was alone with his child; his definitive Jack Rance, snarly, surly and hard as nails, was somehow vulnerable beneath the Wild West veneer; and it was the conflicted anguish and palpable regret of assumptions such as his searing Ballo Renato or his wounded Michele in Il Tabarro, both generous hearts crushed by the weight of jealous despair, that made them so memorable.

For all the electrifying thrust and cut of that robust baritone, it was what Milnes did with his voice that made him special, particularly in the Verdi roles he pretty much owned at the height of his career. He had an unerring instinct for the shape of a phrase that made every musical climax count, a rhythmic elasticity and sense of propulsion, at any tempo, that made every utterance sound spontaneous, a clarity of diction and direct connection to the text that made me believe I was understanding him word for word, even in a language I didn't know.

Fortunately for posterity, Milnes came of age in a golden era for recordings: I grew up listening to his Don Carlo, his Rodrigo, his Iago and Amonasro, but I did not experience his artistry regularly onstage until the late 1980s, after the painful vocal crisis he refers to frankly in his memoir as his "decade of panic." By then, some of the sheen and glorious vocal ease had faded, but that did not diminish his sheer musical and dramatic charisma, his ability to dominate a scene and do full justice to the composer's intentions. When Milnes was onstage, the important moments, great and small, happened in a way they have never happened with any other baritone of my experience.

Intention and intensity were the Milnes hallmarks, and one often felt that he could will himself to look, sound, move in any way that was called for, however foreign to his own nature, however great the vocal challenge. In that respect he was that quintessentially American ideal, a self-made baritone - a farm boy whose confidence, burning desire and unflagging work ethic wrought more from his God-given gifts than any of his friends in the small town of Downers Grove, Illinois, could ever have imagined.

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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