on 3 September 2007
Have you ever listened to Howard Hanson's Merry Mount Suite and wished there was more of it. If so, you need to buy this 2-disc set of the most complete and best sounding recording of the full opera. The Suite kind of compiles and summarizes much of the best music in the opera but there is a lot more fine music as well as many variations on themes included in the Suite.
Is it a great opera!? I wouldn't know. I am not particularly a fan of opera and opera makes up a very small portion of my collection. But I really like Hanson, and I love this opera. And my collection does include 4 versions of this opera.
This is first commercial recording of Merry Mount. Naxos has also issued a recording, available in Europe, but apparently not in the USA, of the premier performance of the opera, the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of February 10, 1934, with Lawrence Tibbet, but the sound on that is bad for its time. If you want to hear how the leads sing their rolls and listen to their performances, you can do it, because if you want to listen to those singers, you have undoubtedly listened to others of their recordings of the period and can make the mental adjustments necessary to enjoy their performances. In that case the 1934 recording is recommended to you. But if you want to hear what the orchestra is doing, it is a real stretch, even if you are used to listening to orchestral recordings from the early 1930's or even acoustic orchestral recordings, as I am. In 1955, Hanson conducted several concert performances of Merry Mount at the Eastman School of Music with students and faculty performing the singing and orchestral parts. An experimental stereo recording of (at least) one of the performances was made at the time. I suspect it was done by the Mercury recording team since Hanson recorded exclusively for Mercury at the time--and it sounds Mercury-like. This recording was never released commercially--and hopefully the masters are in the Mercury vaults--but some copies were made, perhaps for Hanson and the performers, and copies do exist. It is worthy of commercial release, especially as a composer's recording. It is a wonderful performance, but Hanson made some significant cuts, and also added a scene--what this Naxos release of the Seattle performance calls Act III, Scene I. This scene does not appear in the original libretto or in the Premier recording. When the Seattle Symphony did its two dress rehearsals and two evening performances back in 1996, the opera was broadcast either live or tape-delayed. At least one someone recorded that off the radio, unfortunately in mono, and that recording has also been circulated somewhat, but its sound pales in comparison to this long delayed official issue of the Seattle performances. If you have that, you still want this. And this performance is probably somewhat different, being taken, apparently, from the two evening performances, whereas the broadcast is probably just one evening or the other. There were also performances by the San Antonio Opera with Beverly Sills as Lady Marigold in 1964, directed by the composer, I believe, and by Rochester's Opera Under the Stars in 1976 with the composer present, but apparently not conducting. I know of no recordings of those two performances. Hanson also recorded about 35 minutes of excerpts from the opera about 1964, released on Mercury LP and long out of print, and the Suite from Merry Mount, currently available on a 4 disc Mercury box set which is most highly recommended and which also contains his first 3 symphonies and a variety of other shorter works. That Mercury recording of the Suite also includes on a separate disc Hanson doing a lecture/demonstration/deconstruction/reconstruction of the themes, orchestral colors, and construction of the music in the Suite which is quite fascinating as well as beautifully and naturally recorded.
This Seattle Symphony version has slightly more very minor cuts than the Tibbet version, but includes the extra scene that Hanson apparently added years later, so it is the most complete version, as well as being the best recorded and only one readily available in the United States. The orchestral writing is very important and always clear. The singers and chorus are quite clear and their voices are always well balanced with the orchestra. The opera contains much beautiful orchestral and choral writing. I wouldn't presume to speak about the quality of the operatic writing, but there is much beautiful music there, too. And Hanson's music is so powerful that one really grows to care about the characters and their plight, even the aptly named Wrestling (with his personal demons) Bradford. Despite the clarity of the voice recording, it is still really helpful to have a libretto (though no performance I am aware of follows the original exactly), but unfortunately, that is long out of print, probably for decades. Mine dates from 1933 and cost 50¢ when new (I paid considerably more and counted myself lucky). When the performances were done in Seattle, rather than passing out a libretto, supertitles were used which presumably followed the performance exactly. Naxos should get rights to make a transcription of the supertitles available online or by mail order since they don't include a libretto with the discs. However, the summary of Merry Mount that they do include in the booklet is the best I've seen and really enhances one's enjoyment of the opera.
on 22 December 2015
This is a brilliant recording of this inexplicably neglected great American opera. The music is clear and dignified, and it would be worth buying this just for the music alone. This opera is ironic on so many levels, and the bright, clear, lyrical, optimistic music amidst the darkness of the theme is a reflection of this. The choruses are heavenly in their innocence. I found that 'Bradford's dream' the weakest part of the opera.
There is a detailed synopsis of the opera in the sleeve notes, but why no libretto? If you buy this and want the libretto, you can get it here: https://media.wnyc.org/media/resources/2014/May/07/Merry-Mount.pdf.