Peter Mattei and Robert Merrill do not share much in common. Their birthdays are one day apart in different eras, the former born on June 3, 1965, and the latter on June 4, 1917, and despite being baritones, they are a completely different class of that noble voice.
Merrill will always be remembered for the darker timbre and weight that allowed him to dominate the Verdi repertoire like few others. Meanwhile, Mattei’s lighter baritone has made him one of the great Don Giovanni interpreters of his day and an iconic Eugene Onegin. He has also successfully made forays into the music of Richard Wagner.
But there is one opera that both men dominated (not “La Bohème,” though they have both performed it)—“Il Barbiere di Siviglia.”
Mattei is one of the leading interpreters in the world, performing Figaro at the Met 21 times, including the premiere of the current Bartlett Sher production. Fred Cohen of Opera News was quite enamored of his interpretation. “Mattei presented an unconventional Figaro—not the usual jolly accomplice, but a macho working man whose assertiveness suggested the class resentment that emerges in Beaumarchais’s sequel. Vocally he was impeccable, his baritone big, vigorous and almost improbably juicy,” wrote the critic.
Merrill was a famed Barber of his time, performing the role a whopping 46 times during his time at the Met, his first performance coming on Nov. 11, 1946. He did score some controversial criticism for his work in the opera, but continued to perform it and even recorded it in 1958.
Here are the two iconic artists taking on that famous aria “Largo al Factotum.”