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Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Merry Mount - opera in three acts and six scenes op. 31 (1933) [124:02]
Lady Marigold Sandys - Lauren Flanigan (soprano); Sir Gower Lackland - Walter MacNeil (tenor); Wrestling Bradford - Richard Zeller (baritone); Praise-God Tewke - Charles Robert Austin (bass); Christopher Bristol, (tenor); Gene Buchholz, (bass); Fred K. Dent, (baritone); Byron Ellis, (bass-baritone); Rosy Freudenstein, (alto); Paul Gudas, (tenor); Diana Huber, (soprano); Daniel Jessup, (bass); Barry Johnson, (baritone); Gino Luchetti, (tenor); Louise Marley, (mezzo); Joachim Schneider, (baritone); Nan Beth Walton, (alto)
Seattle Symphony Chorale; Northwest Boychoir/Joseph Crnko; Seattle Girls' Choir/Dr Jerome Wright
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
rec. live, Seattle Center Opera House, Washington, 28-29 October 1996. DDD
Synopsis included
NAXOS AMERICAN OPERA CLASSICS 8.669012-13 [45:13 + 78:49]


Howard Hanson, born in Nebraska of Swedish ancestry, is best known as a symphonist. His first symphony, “Nordic” is available on Naxos in harness with the Merry Mountain Suite. That suite for most listeners is the closest we have got to this opera, which was premiered at the Met in 1934 under Tullio Serafin and with Lawrence Tibbett and Swedish soprano Göta Ljungberg as Bradford and Lady Marigold. It seems that, in spite of being a great success – there were no less than 50 curtain calls – it was never mounted again. The present recording was made in connection with two concert performances for the 100th anniversary of Howard Hanson’s birth. Since it has already been reviewed on MusicWeb I am not going into a lot of details concerning history and plot, since such facts can be found in Rob Barnett’s review here. I will content myself with some general remarks and observations.

My first impression was the same that I had when listening to all that remains of Grieg’s unfinished opera Olav Tryggvason. At the time I wrote: “the music is appropriately dynamic and with a forward thrust one rarely finds with Grieg. That said, one misses a sense of dramatic development and after 35 minutes one feels that we are still in a preliminary state. An oratorio perhaps, or a dramatic cantata, but it feels a long way from the operatic stage. Still it is fascinating to hear and Grieg’s choral writing is often impressive while the instrumentation is more expressive than arguably anywhere else in his orchestral oeuvre”. Everything here isn’t applicable on Hanson’s opera, but what impresses is the choral writing and also the purely orchestral music. There is power and rhythmic thrust here that is of a dignity it seems improbable that this music hardly ever is heard. Take the children’s chorus in the first act (CD1 tr. 8) which more or less heralds Orff’s Carmina burana, which appeared only two years later. And the final chorus of act 1 is almost Elgarian in its breadth.

There is more of this in act 2 with its atmospheric and jazzy prelude and the motoric and orgiastic Maypole dance. Scene 3 of that act, The Hellish Rendezvous, is powerful with jagged syncopations and the urgent beat of the bass-drum. Finally there is a spectacular and jazz-inspired thunderstorm in the first scene of act 3. In other words it is the public scenes and the nature surrounding the people that make the greatest impression while the individual characters take some time to get behind the cardboard stage, and the fault lies in the less than dramatic recitative, slow-moving and low-key.

Probably Grieg could have developed into a fully-fledged dramatist had he been allowed to complete his opera. In his case it was the librettist Björnson who obviously mistrusted the composer’s dramatic potential and thus never delivered the rest of the text. Hanson was luckier and as the plot unfolds he finds suitable expressions for his main characters. Marigold’s ‘revenge aria’ in act 2 (CD2 tr. 7) has real intensity and in Bradford’s prayer (CD2 tr. 9) one feels the personality behind the words. Maybe the dramatic highpoint in the opera is the love duet between Bradford and Marigold in The Hellish Rendezvous (CD2 tr. 13), where the two singers also are at their dramatic best, and Marigold’s defence aria in the last scene (CD2 tr. 18) is not far behind.  So even though Merry Mount may not be a consummate masterpiece, there are so many fine things here that it would be a pity if music lovers overlooked the work.

The performance, before a model audience, whose presence is mainly noticeable through the applause, which occur only at the end of scenes, is a good one with impressive playing and not least singing of the choruses. The chorus masters should have an armful of roses each and so should the wholly admirable Gerard Schwarz. As can be seen in the header there is a long list of soloists, most of them in comprimario parts but there is no one letting the performance down. Of the major roles Louise Marley should be mentioned for her fine portrait of Plentiful, and both Walter MacNeil and Charles Robert Austin are good.

It is however Richard Zeller as Bradford and Lauren Flanigan as Marigold who stand out and are the really rounded characters. Zeller’s beautiful high baritone has the full register of expressive means and Ms Flanigan’s vibrant soprano has all the required intensity the role needs.

While not a complete masterpiece, Merry Mount has a lot of musical excellence to offer and this wholly admirable recording should be heard by everyone with an interest in opera.

Göran Forsling 

See also Reviews by William Kreindler and Rob Barnett 



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