Culture Magazine

Opera Review: Burn This

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
Merry Mount at Spring For Music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: Burn This

Conductor Michael Christie made his Carnegie Hall debut with Merry Mount.
Photo by Chris Lee.

Howard Hanson's Merry Mount belongs to that large category of operas that were beloved upon their premiere but were quickly forgotten following its opening run.  It premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1934, receiving a still-standing record of 50 curtain calls on opening night. On Wednesday night, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra brought this bold and ultimately fascinating work to Carnegie Hall as their offering for Night Three of this year's Spring For Music Festival. The results were...incendiary.
Based on a libretto by Richard L. Stokes (with loose connections to the Nathaniel Hawthorne story The Maypole of Merry Mount) this is a harrowing tale of love, lust and hellfire in Puritan New England, written a good twenty years before Arthur Miller's The Crucible entered the American conscience. Hanson, a longtime professor at Rochester's own Eastman School of Music was an unabashedly Romantic composer in the mold of Korngold or Richard Strauss, working with a huge orchestra, giant chorus and a large cast.
The plot of Merry Mount is driven by the preacher Wrestling Bradford, sung here by baritone Richard Zeller. Bradford's clerical rants are chiefly directed at the town of Merry Mount, a community of "Cavaliers" (non-Puritan settlers). When the God-botherers attack Merry Mount at the start of the second act, it sets a disastrous chain of events, resulting ng the deaths of almost all of the principal characters and the burning of the Puritan church. The series of confrontations, ballets and over-the-top conflagrations make Hanson's work the American equivalent of Meyerbeer, offering much musical pleasure but little in the way of dramatic sense.
The huge orchestra and two choruses (the Eastman Rochester Chorus and the Bach Children's Chorus of Nazareth College) looked like a natural fit for RPO music director Michael Christie in his Carnegie Hall debut. From the hushed opening prayer to the final "Amen," Mr. Christie dug deep into Hanson's music, revealing a complex leitmotivic structure and a preference for long stretches of posti-Wagnerian "unending melody" interrupted by the occasional (and generally splendid) aria. The best ear candy proved to be the ballet sequences, with an extended and joyful dance around the May pole in Act II and a hellish ballet that recalled Richard Strauss' Dance of the Seven Veils in its slow build to savagery.
Hanson wrote some great tunes for his female lead. Sung by soprano Sara Jakubiak, the character of Lady Marigold Sandys becomes the moral focal point amid the Puritan chaos, with a Wagnerian yearning for death that soars high above the orchestra. In the Damnation scene at the end of Act II, Ms. Jakubiak appeared again as Astaroth, the demonic lover who seduces the preacher and persuades him, in his delerium to sign his soul over to Satan. The plot turns silly (and positively apocalyptic) at this point but the duet for Ms. Jakubian and Mr. Zeller was very beautiful indeed.
With a burly stage presence and sonorous tone, Mr. Zeller made this desperate, love-struck minister a study in internal conflict. As he rained hellfire upon his congregation in the opening act, Mr. Zeller rode huge, sometimes drowning waves of orchestration, buoyed by expert choral support.
In the later acts, he had more opportunity to bring his voice and acting skills to the fore, particularly in the "damnation" scene where the good Reverend has a vision of hell that ends in copulative bliss. The two leads were even stronger in the final scene, as the good preacher accuses Lady Marigold of witchcraft, reveals his allegiance to Satan and charges headlong into the burning town church.
As Sir Gower Lackland, the opera's other romantic lead and Lady Marigold's fiancée, tenor Christopher Pfund showed that he was capable of reaching impressive high notes. But his tight instrument and narrowly focused tone was more suited to the character singing when Sir Gower is reintroduced as the Devil himself. As Praise-God Tewke, bass Charles Robert Austin was sonorous, authoritative and appropriately oblivious to the fact that his character was no fun at all.

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