Creation and First Performance
Merry Mount is unusual in that its libretto was written without a composer in mind. Stokes had conducted comprehensive research into Puritan fanaticism, sexual obsession, and demonology; he found that it often reached pathological levels, and usually ended in death as a form of punishment, or redemption, for its victims. While he found his title in a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stokes crafted an original libretto which some compared to The Scarlet Letter. Upon completion of the text, Stokes went in search of a composer, finally finding one in Howard Hanson. Hanson, for his part, was new to the composition of opera, although he had already written a fair amount of choral music. Still, he was already respected as an elder statesman of American classical music, and such was his reputation that the Metropolitan was convinced to commission the work. Merry Mount would be the fifteenth American opera, and the last but one, presented at the Met during the tenure of Giulio Gatti-Casazza as company director.
The bluntness of the language used in the libretto surprised many, and was remarked upon even during rehearsals; the New York Times wrote, on February 11, 1934:
he call for the first full-dress rehearsal of Mr. Hanson’s first act, to be held today, found several of the singing actors wondering whether modern censorship would approve the candor of some of the “plain English” sung or spoken by the Pilgrim Fathers to their disturbing neighbors, the Cavaliers of Quincy, Mass.
Vigorous in denunciation, the more clerical characters do not mince their words. One of them uses a series of unmistakable Anglo-Saxon epithets in accosting a woman described as Desire Annable, “a sinner.”
To the angry person’s entirely specific charges, the woman not only confesses, but accepts meekly a rejoinder in terms rarely used in a theatre today.
The end of their interview is the traditional “Go and sin no more"
Despite the fiscal frugality imposed on the company by the Great Depression, a lavish production was designed for the opera, and it was lushly cast. Lawrence Tibbett was already well-known to New York audiences for his work in American opera, but the others were more familiar from other fields; Göta Ljungberg was known primarily as a Wagnerian singer, while Edward Johnson had been the company's principal tenor since 1922, and Gladys Swarthout had won fame as a singer of the French repertory.
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