For a number of years in the 1920s and 30s, the MET opera was looking to premiere *the* American opera, in a period where American culture wanted to exert its identity separate from European influences and culture. This was a time of isolationist ideology wedged betweeen two world wars. After a number of unsuccessful commissions, one opera finally emerged in the mid 1930s that had promise: Howard Hanson's Merry Mount.
The premiere of Merry Mount brought such an enthusiastic response from the audience, that applause broke out on several instances in the middle of acts, often after a rousing chorus. And the shocking progression of events in the second act floored the audience then as well as listeners today.
As noted in other reviews, another recording of the opera exists, also produced by Naxos, but is unavailable in the US due to legal issues with the release of any live recordings of MET operas from the time. By today's standard, the recording quality is poor, but the engineering on the recording is phenomenal enough when taken into context: it was on mid-1930s 78 rpm acetate and metal discs. Yet about all scratches and surface noise is absent, though there are still dents in the recordings that make an unfortunate explosion at times.
Levine, in his editorial review, says that this recording makes the earlier one redundant; I would differ. The premiere performance is scads better in orchestral and vocal quality than the Schwartz/Seattle Symphony recording. The premiere features Lawrence Tibbett, who executed the main role with both focal force and dramatic passion. His expression creates the character of Bradford. Gota Ljunberg also has a stellar performance of Marigold, and the Metropolitan Orchestra produces a reading of the opera score that tops about every recording I've heard of the Merry Mount Suite.
Thus, I find this new recording as a compliment to the other. For those not interested in acquiring both CDs, I would of course recommend the Schwartz CD because of its sound quality.
Schwartz's recording is also performed live, and that being about ten years ago. It was not performed as a full-blown stage opera, and the vocal performance quality is set back a bit because of this. The roles don't hold the passion and character development that the earlier one does, and the recording is free from the "additional" expressions of gasps, shouts, etc... from a staged performance that add to the drama. Yet, the vocal quality is by no means poor, and Scwartz's interpretation is equivalant to the quality of his other Hanson recordings. And with Scwartz's performance being live, there are moments of applause.
The music itself may appear relatively simple to some, and yet it is captivating. Many of the orchestral techniques Hanson uses for effect were innovative for the time, and if we are worn out by them, it is only because of their abuse by many lesser composers since. While the highlights of the opera are the choruses (especially the Hellish Rendezvous), Hanson does write several good arias, such as in the last scene for Marigold.
So what happened to the opera? While enjoyed by the audience, the critics were less merciful, and as has happened to so many enriching pieces of music throughout history, the opera fell victim to the saber of criticism, and has only been rediscovered recently. In addition, Hanson's music was influenced by Scandinavian style, so was to some not a true American opera. Still, in most written discussions of great American operas, even brief discussions, mention is made of Merry Mount alongside Susannah, Porgy and Bess, Baby Doe, Amahl, Candide, and Vanessa.
My primary disappoint with this recording is the absense of a libretto. While the scene synopsis is good, I've longed for a libretto; it is available in neither this recording nor the earlier one. And even the synopsis is nothing new, as it is the same synopsis given in the earlier recording. This is my main reason for giving four stars instead of five, but I still offer my deep thanks and gratitude for the present recording. It has helped me hear parts of the orchestra I couldn't hear in the other recording, and has broadened my comprehension of the earlier recording. While I wish the strengths of each recording could be brought together for a stellar performance, I am glad for the strengths of each; not much is left lacking between the two.
In addition, for those familiar with the earlier recording, you'll be pleased to know this new recording has more music; the prelude to Act III is now 7:30 instead of 1:29. There is a 'forest' chorus in addition to a more dramatic and longer development of the Indian war theme.
Now that Merry Mount has a clear-sounding recording available, I have but one more request for the record industry regarding forgotten American operas: will we have the chance to hear Douglas Moore's Pulitzer Prize-winning Giants in the Earth?
This recording is highly recommended for lovers of romanticism, tonality, passionately engaging music, and sweeping Scandinavian styles of Sibelius and Atterberg.