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
I will content myself with some general remarks and observations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
by William Kreindler and Rob