Merry Mount CD, Import
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Opéra 3 actes / Lauren Flanigan (Marigold Sandys), Walter MacNeil (Sir Gower Lackland), Richard Zeller (Wrestling Bradford)... - Ch忖rs de Garçons de Northwest & de Filles de Seattle - Seattle Symphony & Ch忖r - Gerard Schwarz, direction
This is the first modern recording of Howard Hanson's opera. A broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in terrible sound, where it was premiered in 1934, is available in Europe, but this recording makes it redundant. The opera, based on a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, concerns the clash between New England Puritans, with their rigid religiosity, and a group of Cavaliers who come to their town and scandalize everyone with their Maypole dancing and merry-making. There is an interrupted Indian massacre, a scene in Hell for the town's fanatical preacher, Wrestling Bradford, and a self-immolation at the opera's close. While it's good to have such a fine recording of this work available and this performance, with Richard Zeller as a passionate Bradford, the remarkable Lauren Flanigan as Lady Marigold (the object of Bradford's desire), and a fine cast of American singers, is nothing if not superb it is impossible to avoid the fact that the work is bloated, lacks true melodies, relies too heavily on repeated drumbeats for effect, and does not offer any appealing vocal writing for the principals. The music adds up to something vaguely cinematic and, more vaguely, true background. It's clearly a work that was probably better seen than just heard. This recording was taken from two concert performances in 1996. It will be of interest to fans of American opera who should not expect a forgotten masterpiece. --Robert Levine
Is it a great opera!? I wouldn't know. I am not particularly a fan of opera and opera makes up a very small portion of my collection. But I really like Hanson, and I love this opera. And my collection does include 4 versions of this opera.
This is first commercial recording of Merry Mount. Naxos has also issued a recording, available in Europe, but apparently not in the USA, of the premier performance of the opera, the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of February 10, 1934, with Lawrence Tibbet, but the sound on that is bad for its time. If you want to hear how the leads sing their rolls and listen to their performances, you can do it, because if you want to listen to those singers, you have undoubtedly listened to others of their recordings of the period and can make the mental adjustments necessary to enjoy their performances. In that case the 1934 recording is recommended to you. But if you want to hear what the orchestra is doing, it is a real stretch, even if you are used to listening to orchestral recordings from the early 1930's or even acoustic orchestral recordings, as I am. In 1955, Hanson conducted several concert performances of Merry Mount at the Eastman School of Music with students and faculty performing the singing and orchestral parts. An experimental stereo recording of (at least) one of the performances was made at the time. I suspect it was done by the Mercury recording team since Hanson recorded exclusively for Mercury at the time--and it sounds Mercury-like. This recording was never released commercially--and hopefully the masters are in the Mercury vaults--but some copies were made, perhaps for Hanson and the performers, and copies do exist. It is worthy of commercial release, especially as a composer's recording. It is a wonderful performance, but Hanson made some significant cuts, and also added a scene--what this Naxos release of the Seattle performance calls Act III, Scene I. This scene does not appear in the original libretto or in the Premier recording. When the Seattle Symphony did its two dress rehearsals and two evening performances back in 1996, the opera was broadcast either live or tape-delayed. At least one someone recorded that off the radio, unfortunately in mono, and that recording has also been circulated somewhat, but its sound pales in comparison to this long delayed official issue of the Seattle performances. If you have that, you still want this. And this performance is probably somewhat different, being taken, apparently, from the two evening performances, whereas the broadcast is probably just one evening or the other. There were also performances by the San Antonio Opera with Beverly Sills as Lady Marigold in 1964, directed by the composer, I believe, and by Rochester's Opera Under the Stars in 1976 with the composer present, but apparently not conducting. I know of no recordings of those two performances. Hanson also recorded about 35 minutes of excerpts from the opera about 1964, released on Mercury LP and long out of print, and the Suite from Merry Mount, currently available on a 4 disc Mercury box set which is most highly recommended and which also contains his first 3 symphonies and a variety of other shorter works. That Mercury recording of the Suite also includes on a separate disc Hanson doing a lecture/demonstration/deconstruction/reconstruction of the themes, orchestral colors, and construction of the music in the Suite which is quite fascinating as well as beautifully and naturally recorded.
This Seattle Symphony version has slightly more very minor cuts than the Tibbet version, but includes the extra scene that Hanson apparently added years later, so it is the most complete version, as well as being the best recorded and only one readily available in the United States. The orchestral writing is very important and always clear. The singers and chorus are quite clear and their voices are always well balanced with the orchestra. The opera contains much beautiful orchestral and choral writing. I wouldn't presume to speak about the quality of the operatic writing, but there is much beautiful music there, too. And Hanson's music is so powerful that one really grows to care about the characters and their plight, even the aptly named Wrestling (with his personal demons) Bradford. Despite the clarity of the voice recording, it is still really helpful to have a libretto (though no performance I am aware of follows the original exactly), but unfortunately, that is long out of print, probably for decades. Mine dates from 1933 and cost 50¢ when new (I paid considerably more and counted myself lucky). When the performances were done in Seattle, rather than passing out a libretto, supertitles were used which presumably followed the performance exactly. Naxos should get rights to make a transcription of the supertitles available online or by mail order since they don't include a libretto with the discs. However, the summary of Merry Mount that they do include in the booklet is the best I've seen and really enhances one's enjoyment of the opera.
The Composer and His Orchestra
Howard Hanson Conducts Howard Hanson
Hanson Conducts Hanson [Hybrid SACD]
The premiere of Merry Mount brought such an enthusiastic response from the audience, that applause broke out on several instances in the middle of acts, often after a rousing chorus. And the shocking progression of events in the second act floored the audience then as well as listeners today.
As noted in other reviews, another recording of the opera exists, also produced by Naxos, but is unavailable in the US due to legal issues with the release of any live recordings of MET operas from the time. By today's standard, the recording quality is poor, but the engineering on the recording is phenomenal enough when taken into context: it was on mid-1930s 78 rpm acetate and metal discs. Yet about all scratches and surface noise is absent, though there are still dents in the recordings that make an unfortunate explosion at times.
Levine, in his editorial review, says that this recording makes the earlier one redundant; I would differ. The premiere performance is scads better in orchestral and vocal quality than the Schwartz/Seattle Symphony recording. The premiere features Lawrence Tibbett, who executed the main role with both focal force and dramatic passion. His expression creates the character of Bradford. Gota Ljunberg also has a stellar performance of Marigold, and the Metropolitan Orchestra produces a reading of the opera score that tops about every recording I've heard of the Merry Mount Suite.
Thus, I find this new recording as a compliment to the other. For those not interested in acquiring both CDs, I would of course recommend the Schwartz CD because of its sound quality.
Schwartz's recording is also performed live, and that being about ten years ago. It was not performed as a full-blown stage opera, and the vocal performance quality is set back a bit because of this. The roles don't hold the passion and character development that the earlier one does, and the recording is free from the "additional" expressions of gasps, shouts, etc... from a staged performance that add to the drama. Yet, the vocal quality is by no means poor, and Scwartz's interpretation is equivalant to the quality of his other Hanson recordings. And with Scwartz's performance being live, there are moments of applause.
The music itself may appear relatively simple to some, and yet it is captivating. Many of the orchestral techniques Hanson uses for effect were innovative for the time, and if we are worn out by them, it is only because of their abuse by many lesser composers since. While the highlights of the opera are the choruses (especially the Hellish Rendezvous), Hanson does write several good arias, such as in the last scene for Marigold.
So what happened to the opera? While enjoyed by the audience, the critics were less merciful, and as has happened to so many enriching pieces of music throughout history, the opera fell victim to the saber of criticism, and has only been rediscovered recently. In addition, Hanson's music was influenced by Scandinavian style, so was to some not a true American opera. Still, in most written discussions of great American operas, even brief discussions, mention is made of Merry Mount alongside Susannah, Porgy and Bess, Baby Doe, Amahl, Candide, and Vanessa.
My primary disappoint with this recording is the absense of a libretto. While the scene synopsis is good, I've longed for a libretto; it is available in neither this recording nor the earlier one. And even the synopsis is nothing new, as it is the same synopsis given in the earlier recording. This is my main reason for giving four stars instead of five, but I still offer my deep thanks and gratitude for the present recording. It has helped me hear parts of the orchestra I couldn't hear in the other recording, and has broadened my comprehension of the earlier recording. While I wish the strengths of each recording could be brought together for a stellar performance, I am glad for the strengths of each; not much is left lacking between the two.
In addition, for those familiar with the earlier recording, you'll be pleased to know this new recording has more music; the prelude to Act III is now 7:30 instead of 1:29. There is a 'forest' chorus in addition to a more dramatic and longer development of the Indian war theme.
Now that Merry Mount has a clear-sounding recording available, I have but one more request for the record industry regarding forgotten American operas: will we have the chance to hear Douglas Moore's Pulitzer Prize-winning Giants in the Earth?
This recording is highly recommended for lovers of romanticism, tonality, passionately engaging music, and sweeping Scandinavian styles of Sibelius and Atterberg.