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Howard Hanson: Merry Mount
30 Mar 2008

HANSON: Merry Mount

A frequent complaint about contemporary operas — or most any after Puccini's Turandot — is the lack of that memorable lyricism found in the standard repertory.

Howard Hanson: Merry Mount, Op. 31

Lady Marigold Sandys (Lauren Flanigan), Sir Gower Lackland (Walter MacNeil), Wrestling Bradford (Richard Zeller), Praise-God Tewke (Charles Robert Austin), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, Seattle Girls’ Choir, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (cond.)

Naxos 8.669012-13 [2CDs]

$14.99  Click to buy

Better melodies could secure new operas a lasting place on stage, the argument goes. Howard Hanson's 1934 opera Merry Mount, a Metropolitan Opera commission, serves as evidence that a score's tunefulness will not guarantee its survival on the stage. Naxos has re-released the Seattle Symphony's concert recording, performed under conductor Gerard Schwarz. The opera received a rousing ovation at its premiere, but the Met never revived it after the initial run. A suite derived from the opera's score, however, appears on the playlists of most classical music stations. Lush, evocative music, the suite demonstrates that Hanson did some of his best work in setting Richard L. Stokes libretto, based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne story. The synopsis takes almost 5 pages of the Naxos set's booklet essay, in tiny font, and makes for painfully protracted and confusing reading. The recording itself doesn't make matters any clearer; the frequent choral effusions are all but incomprehensible, and little sense of character or dramatic conflict comes through the brief interchanges.

The basic premise of a romance around the conflict between two groups (here the Puritans and the fur traders) serves many a great opera very well. The archaic language, flat characterization, and tedious narrative arc would hobble, one might think, any composer. Apparently Hanson believed in the project enough to let loose with streams of inspired melody. So the suite might seem the first option for interested listeners. however, the Seattle Symphony recording has much to recommend it. The musicians and singers are all committed and able, and Hanson's writing for chorus, absent from the suite, is rich and extensive. Schwarz recorded a series of discs dedicated to Hanson's music, and his knowledge of the composer's style comes through. The most well-known member of the cast, Lauren Flanigan, has a voice large enough for the dramatic moments, if not one easily able to suggest fragility. Lawrence Tibbett has the role of Wrestling Bradford in the premiere. Richard Zeller, without that level of charisma, gives an earnest and capable performance.

The opera does give to the repertory a most amusing list of characters: Plentiful Tewke, Jewel Scrooby, Peregrine Brodrib, Faint-Not Tinker. Not to neglect the First and Second Puritans.

At one time, Naxos offered on CD (outside the USA) the matinee broadcast of one of the original performances, in atrocious sound. Lovers of American opera will want this Naxos recording in superior sound, and those who know and enjoy the suite will probably find the disc worthwhile as well. Only those hoping to find a lost masterpiece deserving of resurrection on today's stages will be disappointed.

Chris Mullins

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