HANSON: Merry Mount

HANSON Merry Mount • Gerard Schwarz, cond; Richard Zeller (Wrestling Bradford); Lauren Flanigan (Lady Marigold Sandys); Louise Marley (Plentiful Tewke); Walter MacNeil (Sir Gower Lackland); Charles Robert Austin (Praise-God Tewke); Northwest Boychoir; Seattle Girls’ Choir; Seattle S Ch and O • NAXOS 8.669012-13 (2 CDs; 2:04)

This is the long-awaited first modern recording of Howard Hanson’s masterpiece Merry Mount. The work enjoyed a triumphant premiere in 1934 at the Metropolitan Opera, with Lawrence Tibbett in the role of Wrestling Bradford and Gladys Swarthout as Lady Marigold Sandys. (That premiere performance has also been released by Naxos, but copyright issues prohibit its sale in the United States; furthermore, the sound quality of that release is so poor as to limit its appeal solely to its value as a historical document.) The Met production ran for nine performances and was considered to be the most successful American opera of major proportions yet produced. But in view of its success at the time (there were reportedly some 50 curtain-calls) and of the enduring appeal of the orchestral suite taken from the opera, one might reasonably question why it has had to wait so long for a complete studio recording, and why it appears so rarely in the opera house. Librettist Richard L. Stokes used as a point of departure a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Not surprisingly, it is Stokes’s libretto that has faced the severest criticism; indeed, the language through which the Puritan minister, Wrestling Bradford, expresses his inner torment is ornately rhetorical and turgid to a point perilously close to ludicrous self-parody. But the active operatic repertoire is packed with works whose librettos are ludicrous. Perhaps the short answer boils down to: 1) money; 2) the sheer irrationality not only of the appeal of opera, but also of the history of the genre itself. One could spend hours recounting the endless instances of meritorious, well-received works that promptly dropped from view, only to resurface many years later, if at all. And Merry Mount requires several hundred participants, including the orchestra, chorus, dancers, and a large cast of soloists.

Nevertheless, Merry Mount is arguably Hanson’s greatest musical achievement, offering some of his most characteristic and most effective passages. Indeed, the many listeners who enjoy the orchestral suite are equally likely to enjoy the entire work, as there is barely a dull musical moment during its 2-hour duration. Most revivals during the past 70+ years have been unstaged or semi-staged concert performances, and a strong case can be made that Merry Mount is most effective as a large-scale cantata, rather than as a work of musical theater. The chorus is featured so prominently throughout that the opera often has the feel of an oratorio, and those portions, as well as some purely orchestral portions, comprise most of its best music. Furthermore, there is relatively little dramatic action in the work, as Hanson himself later acknowledged. 

The story presents yet another example of one of America’s most enduring archetypes: the stern, forbidding moral arbiter who falls victim to his own self-despised licentiousness. (A knowledge of American opera, reinforced by a retrospective view of four centuries of American history, followed by a glance through the daily newspaper, leads one to the inescapable conclusion that our national character is most accurately typified by the self-righteous hypocrite.) The conflict between the spirit and the flesh underlies enough other works of Hanson to suggest that this was a psychological dynamic to which he was particularly drawn. Stokes’s libretto is set in 1625, in a Puritan settlement in Massachusetts where worldly Cavaliers have recently arrived from England. The story involves the feverishly repressed Wrestling Bradford, who becomes irresistibly infatuated with Lady Marigold Sandys, a Cavalier maiden who is already engaged to the Cavalier knight, Sir Gower Lackland. Bradford’s tortured psyche is revealed through grotesque dreams haunted by lascivious psychological projections of his own desires and fears. In one of these dreams he is persuaded by Lucifer to renounce God in order to possess Lady Marigold. In the final scene, a group of Indians—offended earlier by one of the Puritan leaders—sets fire to the settlement, and Bradford, with Marigold in his arms, leaps into the flames. 

In devising music for this story, set 300 years in the past, Hanson, then 37, made no alteration of his usual compositional style, doling out generous helpings of his most appealing and effective devices. The stern, punitive Puritans are depicted through modal chorales, while Bradford’s carnal yearnings are represented by some of the composer’s ripest lyrical effusions, floating on lush cushions of expanded triadic harmony. There is very little of the recitative and declamation that comprise so much 20th-century opera. A few basic motifs unify the entire work. Exciting, rhythmically-driven ostinato build-ups occur frequently in the orchestra during extended ballet episodes (such as the Maypole dances, where one can also hear some of the clearest examples of Hanson’s generally unacknowledged debt to Rimsky-Korsakov) and also underlie choral episodes to suggest the emotional frenzy unleashed among the various hostile factions. 

The recording at hand is drawn from a concert performance that took place in Seattle in 1996, in honor of the composer’s centenary. Rumored to have been frozen by legal and financial complications, the recording has been languishing for 11 years. Now finally available, this recording of Hanson’s magnum opus represents the crowning achievement of Gerard Schwarz’s invaluable survey of the composer’s work for the Delos label, which introduced this music to a whole new generation of listeners during the 1990s—listeners who could enjoy its virtues, uncontaminated by the scornful attitudes of pundits of the previous generation. The performance is well paced and beautifully shaped. Audience noise is not a problem, although there is some applause. The soloists in the leading roles are fine, and the chorus and orchestra are more than adequate to the demands of the work. Libretto is not included, but there is a detailed synopsis cued to the tracks. See the Want List.