Merry Mount - Reception

Reception

The opera was successful at its appearance - “A Stirring Ovation...Reception of Hanson-Stokes Opera most Enthusiastic of 10 Years at Metropolitan", read the headline on page 1 of the second section of the Times - but audiences seemed more pleased with the piece than did the critics. Typical of the latter's attitude was Pitts Sanborn's review for the New York World-Telegram:

Dr. Hanson's music is most effective in the choral passages, which are plentiful. Take the chant of the men within the church after the impressive choral prelude. True there is oftener the suggestion of Moussorgsky than of Massachusetts, but who would be so ungracious as to object to that? Nor has Dr. Hanson failed to assemble lively measures for the Maypole dance or to strike the witching note called for by the wild doings at the "Hellish Rendezous". Unfortunately his writing for the solo voices is not free from awkwardness and at times the weight and density of the orchestral fabric constitutes a barrier between the word that is sung and the ears of the audience.

Less enthusiastic was Olin Downes, writing for the February 11 edition of the Times:

he story is too cluttered up with incidental diversions.... he principal defect of this book lies...in the inhumanity of Bradford. He is nothing but a maddened and perverted sadist. Our Puritan fore-fathers, despite all the present-day condemnation of “suppressions” and the like, were much more than that. They had very noble sides; they had superb heroism. There should be more conflicting impulse and action, and relieving traits, in this character, for us to believe in him.

The music is at times conventionally and noisily effective. Otherwise, it displays neither originality nor any special aptitude for the theatre. Its strongest point is the choral writing. That is somewhat inappropriate, in the sense of dramatic verity, because we know that no Puritans sang these elaborate choruses, or anything much like them.

Critics were, however, nearly universal in their applause for the cast, especially for Tibbett. Sanborn, in his review, said:

"Merry Mount" is almost a one-part opera and that part is Wrestling Bradford. In it Mr. Tibbett exhibits once more his intelligence and skill as a singing actor, as well as splendid courage and endurance. The wooden angularity of his movements and gestures, however, was a mistaken exaggeration. That the terrific tessitura of his part interferes with his vocal security and freedom was, of course, not his fault.

Downes, for his part, wrote that

The cast and orchestra were admirable. Mr. Tibbett had to shout his way, against prevailingly heavy orchestration, all through the opera, so that it was no wonder his tone showed sign of strain. He was nevertheless as effective as he possibly could be in an ineffective part. Mme. Ljungberg also shouted, but with evident care for the purpose and respect for the composer’s intention and melodic line... Mr. Johnson sang excellently with a fine quality.... The chorus was superb, and Mr. Serafin, very plainly, had prepared the opera with the greatest care. (Times, February 11, 1934.)

Downes also found occasion to comment upon the makeup of the audience:

Another feature of the occasion was the uncommon character of the audience. On the social and musical side it was exceptionally representative, but it had also an element not often present in such force in this lyric theatre. For this was an audience more thoughtful and conservative than is customary in many places of public amusement.

Those who do not always patronize opera as an amusement were there. They listened and they looked with a special seriousness and interest. It is reasonable to believe that this substantial gathering in a theatre crowded to capacity was attracted by the nature of Mr. Stoke’s subject...

To other facts of the occasion should be added these: That the performance was repeatedly punctuated by applause; that after the first curtain there was a particular burst of approval for Lawrence Tibbett; that after the second curtain there were recalls after recalls for Dr. Hanson and for Mr. Stokes, who came back and forth with complete éclat, and showed clearly their approval of the audience! Enthusiasm grew. There was more applause after the second act-the Maypole scene-than after the first, and more after the third than after the second.

Later critics have not been kinder to the opera; Paul Jackson, in his book Saturday Afternoons at the Old Met, writes that

incessant drumbeat ostinati and repetitive fanfares ultimately relegate a large portion of the score to the realm of background music. Hanson establishes no distinctive sound signature either in the predictably Polovetzian choral and ballet sections or in his monochromatic vocal writing for the principals...Hanson is overfond of length choral vocalizations on "Ah"; too often the music calls to mind the trappings of a Hollywood soundtrack. After Bradford's penitential immolation, a final choral apotheosis, accompanied by the inevitable drums, brings the opera to a close. One must echo Johnson's lament that all their labors and money had "gone for nothing."

Even some members of the cast were disappointed in the piece. Johnson, after two weeks' rehearsal, confessed that he was "pretty well fed up with it...Merry Mount is a very pretentious, ineffective work," and later called his role "simply lousy."

The opera was given a further eight times during the season, including three tour performances; the last of these took place in Rochester, New York, where Hanson was director of the Eastman School of Music.

Read more about this topic:  Merry Mount

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