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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
NAXOS AMERICAN OPERA CLASSICS 8.669012-13 [45:13 + 78:49]á

“BRIGHT were the days at Merry Mount, when the Maypole was the banner staff of that gay colony!” This is a line from Hawthorne’s description of an early conflict in what was then known as Plymouth Plantation, now Massachusetts. As Thomas Morton was a friend of Johnson and Marlowe, held no religious prejudices and treated the Native Americans as equals, he might have expected to be well-received anywhere in North America. But as the Puritans in Plymouth were too strict even for their brethren in England and did not want anyone interfering with their “Indian trade”, not to mention distracting them with the “carnal” delights of seventeenth century masques, Morton and his colony of Cavaliers were an instant threat. It is also to be remembered that back in England the Cavaliers and the Puritans were also political opponents.
When commissioned for a grand opera by the Met in New York Hanson collaborated with the music critic Richard Stokes, who used the disparate accounts of Morton and the Puritans in addition to Hawthorne for his libretto. The first Met performance was in 1934, having been preceded by a concert performance in 1933 at the Ann Arbor Festival which included Nelson Eddy and John Charles Thomas among the singers. At the actual premiere the cast included Lawrence Tibbett, Gjota Lundbjorg and Gladys Swarthout. It received over fifty curtain calls as well as being carried nationally on radio. It then went into the semi-oblivion of so many American operas of the period. The version here derives from two concert performances on successive days in October 1996 celebrating the Hanson centenary.
“Merry Mount” opens in 1625 with the Puritans singing “Be as a lion dread Jehovah …” whose tune will recur frequently in the opera. They are led by their minister Wrestling Bradford who is soon to marry the young Plentiful Tewke, a prospect he finds unappealing when compared with that of the mystery woman (Astoreth) he has been seeing in his dreams. The Puritans are horrified to find that Morton and his Cavaliers have set up a Maypole for their “pagan” celebrations and this provokes violent events when Bradford breaks a truce with the Cavaliers in order to prevent the marriage of Lady Marigold Sandys, in whom he recognizes the subject of his dreams. In Act 2 the Cavaliers and Indians are inaugurating the village (Maypole Dances-track 2) when they are attacked by the Puritans, who destroy the village, thereby also alienating the Indians. Marigold is carried off to the Puritan settlement where there is a dream sequence in which occurs the well-known love-duet “Rise up, my love, my fair one” (Track 13 of Act 2) with words from The Song of Songs. In Act 3 the Indians destroy the Puritan settlement, for which Lady Marigold is blamed. The Puritans are about to kill her when she is seized by Bradford, who marches the two of them into the burning church, accompanied by the music that opened the opera.
Many of the comments on “Merry Mount” describe it as basically a stage counterpart to his best-known orchestral works. On the surface this is true and there is plenty of the luscious melody, dramatic ostinati and sequential development that are so associated with Hanson. But the sinister asceticism of the libretto brings out music that is more despairing than usual with the composer. At the same time he is writing about New England and must substitute the psalmodic atmosphere of the Bay Psalm Book for his usual chorales. This too serves to distinguish the opera from his other works and makes one wonder what he could have done with an opera based on any of Hawthorne’s novels. Finally one should not forget that one of the main musical characters is the sense of the primeval forest of North America in 1625, perhaps familiar to Hanson from reading Francis Parkman.ááááááááá
Of the singers praise must be given to Richard Zeller for sustaining, both dramatically and technically a role in which he is not only the main character of the opera, but on stage almost all the time. Even in a conflation of two performances such as this one that is very impressive. While his voice is not as beautiful as that of Lawrence Tibbett or Jerry Crawford he is their equal for drama and competes well with Tibbett in the latter’s signature aria “Tis an earth defiled” (Act1-Track 4) (see below). Lauren Flanigan is one of the most intelligent of American singers and her performance here is no exception, especially in the third scene of Act 2 and most of Act 3. However, I felt that she did not fully grasp the forceful part of Marigold’s character along with the pathetic and attractive ones. I found Walter MacNeil disappointing in the role of Marigold’s fiancÚ Sir Gower Lackland, although this may have been partially due to the live recording. On the other hand Charles Robert Austin is unexpectedly good as the village elder Praise-God Tewke, as is Louise Marley as his daughter Plentiful, Bradford’s intended. The other singers are mostly quite serviceable. The choral complement is phenomenal. The adult singers enunciate Hanson’s contrapuntal lines with thrilling effect and the children provide the exact modal tone needed.
The most surprising thing about this recording is the variability of Schwarz’s conducting. Much of the accompaniment to the singers and several of the purely orchestral sections is both shrill and poorly phrased, at least to me. One does not expect his phrasing to sound like Hanson but one may be forgiven disappointment when it doesn’t sound like Schwarz as we know him from the five discs of the Complete Symphonies on Delos. While there were many sections of beautiful conducting I did not feel comfortable overall with his rendition on these discs. Perhaps again it was due to the nature of the performance.
As said above the opera never totally went way and tapes of the premiere performances circulated among collectors for decades until Naxos remastered them and put them in its Naxos Historical series (see review). Howard Hanson himself conducted an incomplete concert performance on the radio in the mid-fifties that was archived and this too has circulated. Hanson recorded the suite he made from the opera at least three times as well as our conductor here, Gerard Schwarz, and also Kenneth Schermerhorn and Erich Kunzel. Hanson also recorded a selection of excerpts with singers and chorus in the early stereo days. From the viewpoint of both completeness and sound quality there is no competition to this recording, not even considering quality of performance. Unfortunately, there is no libretto (nor is it available from the Naxos site) although there is a comprehensiveá track analysis by Keith Anderson.
William Kreindler
see also review by Rob Barnett

Naxos American Classics page

Reviews of the Orchestral Suite from Merry Mount
Schwarz – Delos
Hanson – Citadel
Hanson – Mercury
Schermerhorn – Naxos
Kunzel – Telarc



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