OP2256. MERRY MOUNT (Hanson), Live Performance, 10 Feb., 1934, w.Serafin Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Lawrence Tibbett, Göta Ljungberg, Gladys Swarthout, Edward Johnson, Irra Petina, Henriette Wakefield, Millo Picco, etc. (Germany) 2-Naxos 8.110024/25. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 636943102428
“One of the better American operas....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.”
- Steve Schwartz, Classical.Net
“MERRY MOUNT is an opera in three acts by American composer Howard Hanson; its libretto, by Richard Stokes, is loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story THE MAYPOLE OF MERRY MOUNT, taken from his Twice Told Tales. Hanson's only opera, it was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
The opera received its world première in concert at the fortieth annual May Festival of the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on 20 May, 1933, with the composer conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The cast included Leonora Corona, Rose Bampton, Frederick Jagel, Chase Baromeo, John Charles Thomas, and George Galvani.
Its world stage première by the Metropolitan Opera was given on 10 February, 1934. As that performance took place at a Saturday matinée, it was broadcast nationally as part of the company's weekly radio series, with Milton Cross serving as announcer. The première featured Lawrence Tibbett in the central rôle of Wrestling Bradford, the Puritan minister, with Gladys Swarthout as his betrothed, Plentiful Tewke. Swedish soprano Göta Ljungberg and Canadian tenor Edward Johnson took the rôles of the Cavalier lovers, Lady Marigold Sandys and Sir Gower Lackland; Tullio Serafin was on the podium. The opera was performed eight more times during the season, but never returned to the Met's repertory, and subsequent performances have been scarce.
MERRY MOUNT is unusual in that its libretto was written without a composer in mind. Stokes had conducted comprehensive research into Puritan fanaticism, sexual obsession, and demonology; he found that it often reached pathological levels, and usually ended in death as a form of punishment, or redemption, for its victims. While he found his title in a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stokes crafted an original libretto which some compared to THE SCARLET LETTER. Upon completion of the text, Stokes went in search of a composer, finally finding one in Howard Hanson. Hanson, for his part, was new to the composition of opera, although he had already written a fair amount of choral music. Still, he was already respected as an elder statesman of American classical music, and such was his reputation that the Metropolitan was convinced to commission the work. MERRY MOUNT would be the fifteenth American opera, and the last but one, presented at the Met during the tenure of Giulio Gatti-Casazza as company director.
Despite the fiscal frugality imposed on the company by the Great Depression, a lavish production was designed for the opera, and it was lushly cast. Lawrence Tibbett was already well-known to New York audiences for his work in American opera, but the others were more familiar from other fields; Göta Ljungberg was known primarily as a Wagnerian singer, while Edward Johnson had been the company's principal tenor since 1922, and Gladys Swarthout had won fame as a singer of the French repertory.”
- Zillah Dorset Akron
“Lawrence Tibbett, to my taste the greatest operatic baritone America has ever produced. His enormous charm is complemented by fabulous diction - he's one of the very few ‘classical’ singers whose every word is clearly understandable.”
- Jeffrey Lipscomb