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6.6.07

Hanson's Merry Mount

Howard Hanson
Howard Hanson (1896-1981), photo from the Northwestern University Library Archives
Robert Wilder Blue's essay American Opera at the Met: 1910-35 is an eye-opening examination of the leading American opera house's record on commissioning new American operas. Here is the crucial part:
The Metropolitan Opera House opened on October 22, 1883, with the popular 24-year-old French opera, Faust (Charles Gounod). Of the twenty operas presented during the first season, sixteen had been written in the previous fifty years. (The Met’s repertory today looks remarkably similar to that first season 119 years ago; while time has marched on the operatic repertory has stayed pretty much in the same place.) The company’s first fifty seasons were adventuresome, including eighteen world premieres (thirteen by American composers) and 78 U.S. premieres. Over its 119-year history, the Met has presented American operas in roughly one-third of its seasons. The richest period by far though was the [Giulio] Gatti-Casazza era (1908-35), when the Met set a mandate for itself to present an American opera every season. [emphasis mine]
How many of the American operas commissioned by the Met in that "golden era" are still performed? The first one was Frederick Shepherd Converse's The Pipe of Desire (libretto by George Edward Barton) in 1910, followed by such memorable operas as Horatio Parker's Mona (1912), Walter Damrosch's Cyrano (1913) and The Man Without a Country, Victor Herbert's Madeleine (1914), Franco Leoni's The Oracle: The Dance in Place Congo (1915), and Charles Wakefield Cadman's Shanewis or The Robin Woman (1918). Going further through the list will not bring us anything much more familiar, as all of these operas, as new and as American as they were, are lost in the land that atonality forgot.

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Howard Hanson, Merry Mount, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz
(released May 29, 2007)

From Amazon UK:
available at Amazon UK
Merry Mount, live radio broadcast from the Met, 1934
(1998)
One of the operas from this singular period I have long felt deserves more exposure is Howard Hanson's first and only opera Merry Mount, op. 31. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned the opera and gave its stage premiere on February 10, 1934, conducted by none other than Tullio Serafin, with Lawrence Tibbett as the Puritan minister, Wrestling Bradford, and Gladys Swarthout as Plentiful Tewke. In 1998, Naxos tried to release a CD of the Met radio broadcast, but a court order barred its distribution in the United States. The sound is reportedly not particularly good.

So this new release from Naxos is of major importance, although the recording on this 2-CD set was made over ten years ago by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony and is only being released now. The engineers had two performances (October 28 and 29, 1996) from which to piece together the recording, and it is mostly quite good. Baritone Richard Zeller and soprano Lauren Flanigan have considerable appeal as Wrestling Bradford and the woman he falls in love with, Lady Marigold Sandys. Tenor Walter MacNeil is generally strong as Sir Gower Lackland, if occasionally at the edge of vocal control. The childrens' choruses, the Northwest Boychoir and Seattle Girls' Choir, and soloists from them (one presumes), sound generally fine. The Seattle Symphony Chorale -- there are a lot of choral scenes, and this large chorus of volunteers sounds overtaxed -- and one or two of the minor solo roles are occasionally weak links.

Richard L. Stokes derived the libretto, very loosely, from one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales called The Maypole of Merry Mount. Hawthorne, as he often did, wove a fictional tale out of a historical episode, when an actual cavalier settler, Thomas Morton, erected a maypole in a location he called "Meriemounte" just outside the Plymouth Colony of Puritans. The opera's story makes sense, in spite of the crazy character names (credit to Stokes, not Hawthorne), until the unexpected conclusion. The opera is not one I expect to see on the stage anytime soon, but it is worth hearing on disc. Hanson's style is firmly in the neo-Romantic style, essentially the foundational vocabulary of American film scores and music theater. Leonard Bernstein was about 16 years old at the time of this opera's premiere, just about to go off to Harvard to study with Walter Piston, and the sound apparently leached into his DNA. Hanson becomes a little tonally adventurous in the delightfully weird "Hellish Rendezvous" (Act II, scene 3), when Bradford dreams that he is wed to Lucifer's bride, in the guise of Marigold, of course.

The price is certainly right, at $14.97 from Amazon.com at the time of this writing, although the corner-cutting leaves certain things to be desired. The booklet is more substantial than many Naxos releases, but the print is almost too small to be read comfortably and there is no libretto (and none available online that I can find). Even so, this is an obvious choice for collectors interested in American opera.

Naxos 8.669012-13

UPDATE:
All is definitely not well at the Seattle Symphony, where the players have long been unhappy with their conductor, Gerard Schwarz, and the Board of Directors. [Lisa Hirsch]

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