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CD Review

Howard Hanson

Merry Mount

  • Lauren Flanigan (Lady Marigold Sandys)
  • Walter MacNeil (Sir Gower Lackland)
  • Richard Zeller (Wrestling Bradford)
  • Charles Robert Austin (Praise-God Tewke)
Seattle Symphony Chorale
Northwest Boyschoir
Seattle Girls' Choir
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8.669012-13 124:02 2CDs
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Summary for the Busy Executive: No tunes?

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's Montezuma, Adams's 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. News of the impending production put the wind up Gershwin's Porgy librettist, Dubose Heyward. Gershwin, with the philosophy of "rising tide raises all boats," calmed Heyward and also pointed out that the two operas would be quite different, so that there'd be room for both (what an optimist!). At any rate, Merry Mount proved a great success, with nine performances its first year – not bad for a contemporary Modern opera. The Met production even received a received a recording (available in Europe, but due to legal complications, not in the U.S.). Yet it lay unperformed for decades. I'm told a tape exists of a Hanson-led performance at the Eastman School of Music, and I can well believe it. At any rate, Hanson made a suite from the opera, and the suite has received many recordings. He also released a disc of excerpts, with singers, chorus, and everything, which is what hipped me on the complete opera in the first place. I've waited for years for the Hanson recording to surface (I gave up on the Met). In the meantime, Gerard Schwarz's recording will more than do.

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. As drama, however, Merry Mount falls a bit short. I'm not that interested in either the plot or the characters, but the same holds true with me vis-à-vis Nathaniel Hawthorne's original story. I get it; I just don't give a fig. The opera is a different matter. The music compels you to pay attention and to care.

I first got an inkling of the complete work from the Mercury LP of excerpts led by the composer. Frankly, it's better than this production, although Schwarz and his forces do quite well for a live recording. Hanson, however, blazes. If a complete composer-led production exists, I'd recommend that one, although I haven't heard the Met recording. However, don't hold your breath until either becomes available. Hanson's reading hasn't appeared on commercial CD so far, and he hasn't the market clout that would impel a distributor to seek it out.

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's influence on his own opera. I suppose I don't understand what people want when they ask for a great tune. Hanson certainly avoids conventional song form in favor of an arioso style, as do Wagner, Mussorgsky, and Gershwin. Indeed, Puccini himself uses the same method, by and large, and I find many parallels between Puccini's dramatic movement and Hanson's. Hanson primarily concerns himself 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."

The music ranges from the grimness of the Puritans to the lushness of Bradford's desires to the insouciance of village children. Hanson hasn't gotten hold of one shtick and chewed it until flavorless. Considering, as I've said, the use of memorable motifs rather than melodies as such, I believe this quite an achievement. Again, I think it comes down to Hanson's symphonic chops as well as the strength and individuality of his idiom. Like Puccini's, you can recognize Hanson's music after a few bars.

The voices, with the exception of Lauren Flanigan as Marigold, are okay. Richard Zeller as Bradford yells on his high notes. Charles Austin as Tewke occasionally turns muddy. Walter MacNeil as Lackland I can't comment on, because he doesn't get all that much to do, since Lackland's primarily a plot device. Many of the others sound either like students or past their primes. However, almost every one of them can act. Flanigan alone gives you a first-rate sound combined with decent acting. 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 disc.

Copyright © 2010, Steve Schwartz