OP0665. MERRY MOUNT (Howard Hanson), Live Performance, 1996, Seattle, w.Gerard Schwarz Cond. Seattle S.O. & Chorus; Lauren Flanigan, Walter MacNeil, Richard Zeller, Charles Robert Austin, etc. (Canada) 2-Naxos 8.669012/13. Final Copy! - 730099691222
“One of the better American operas finally receives its first recording. I've been reading the reviews, usually titled something like ‘Why are There No Good American Operas?’. When I encounter this sentiment – on opera or symphonies or dodecaphony or whatever – I always wonder how much the writer has heard. Off the top of my head I can name several quite good operas written by Americans: Moore's BALLAD OF BABY DOE, Ward's CRUCIBLE, Thomson's LORD BYRON and THE MOTHER OF US ALL, Kurka's GOOD SOLDIER SCHWEIK, Sessions' MONTEZUMA, Adams' DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER, Bernstein's TROUBLE IN TAHITI, and, of course, Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS. If these writers mean that no American opera gets performed as often as RIGOLETTO, I can't argue with a plain fact, but if they equate ‘often-performed’ with ‘good’, I have a bone to pick. After all, DIE MEISTERSINGER probably garners fewer productions than Puccini's BOHÈME, but I'd hesitate to say it's not as good.
For me, an opera must satisfy two criteria: a strong impulse to the drama or at least something to sustain interest in the stage action; memorable tunes. Sometimes a opera succeeds on one or the other. I can't pretend great interest in the drama of TURANDOT (except for the three ministers), but the tunes conquer all. Sharply-drawn characters also help.
Hanson's MERRY MOUNT had a prestigious 1934 première at the Met, with Lawrence Tibbett as Bradford. MERRY MOUNT proved a great success, with nine performances its first year – not bad for a contemporary Modern opera. Yet it lay unperformed for decades.
If you know only Hanson's suite, you will probably not be prepared for the strong sweep of the opera. The suite is a fine, ‘popsy’ piece – delightful, in fact. The opera, however, has the power of Niagara. In part, narrative impulse arises from Hanson the symphonist's ability to think in long spans and to string together short motifs so as to create new musical contexts. This, like the LAMENT FOR BEOWULF, is Hanson at his considerable best. The Opera is a different matter. The music compels you to pay attention and to care.
Critics have complained that the choruses outshine the arias, and this is true. Hanson gives the greatest highs of the Opera to the choir. But one can say the same of Mussorgsky's BORIS GODUNOV and Gershwin's PORGY AND BESS, neither one of which – whatever nits the critics have to pick – can be said to lack great tunes. Hanson admitted to BORIS' influence on his own opera. I find many parallels between Puccini's dramatic movement and Hanson's. Hanson concerns himself primarily with building the scene rather than creating one set piece after another and succeeds in building up a quick, inexorable pace which, frankly, lets you glide over the absurdities of the libretto. Nevertheless, every scene in MERRY MOUNT has at least one musical stretch that sticks with you. Furthermore, lest we forget, Puccini was once criticized for ‘no tunes’. Like Puccini's, you can recognize Hanson's music after a few bars.
On the other hand, this is a live performance, and for that it's quite fine. Schwarz's orchestra plays sharply and even elegantly when required. Kudos to Schwarz for keeping the large forces firmly together. Audience noise is minimal.
If you like gorgeous, luxuriant melodies and vigorous dances and choral work, I highly recommend this set.”
- Steve Schwartz, Classical.Net