Sunday, May 4, 2008

An Opera for Beltane

I suppose I should have been spending this lovely Beltane Sunday out in the woods a-conjuring summer in, but WWUH (University of West Hartford) has a Sunday afternoon opera program with a sweet tooth for unusual works, and their choice today was the new Naxos 8669 recording (from a 1996 Seattle Symphony concert - what took 'em so long?) of a genuine May Day opera, Howard Hanson's 1934 Merry Mount, libretto taken from a Hawthorne short story (but Hawthorne unaccountably omitted the extensive witches' sabbath-devil's orgy sequence from his version).

I remember when Hanson, who ran the Eastman School in Rochester for forty years, grumbled at salutes to 80-year-old Aaron Copland as the "grand old man of American music," that Copland wasn't old enough for this distinction and Hanson was. In any case, both are dead now, and Hanson's music is far from well known, as he lacked the jazz inflections and winning populist emotions that kept Copland up top. On the other hand, Copland never composed an opera for the Met, and Hanson did. I first discovered this years ago when my grandmother gave me her collection of old librettos - her husband (who died in 1935) having had a sweet tooth for opera. The Met, in Gatti-Casazza's day, felt a certain commitment to American music, and every year or two there was another world premiere - although not one of the works so created (unless you count Puccini's California Gold Rush drama, La Fanciulla del West) endured more than a season or two, and none are remembered today: Peter Ibbetson, Mona, The King's Henchman, Shanewis, The Great God Brown. With all their faults, these stylish works were a damn sight better operas than such Met commissions as The Last Savage and The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy and The Voyage. (But none of them is half as good as Fanciulla.) (This leaves Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra in some middling limbo. Anyway, rep standards they have never become.)

Merry Mount is an expert score, melodious in a late-romantic but pre-Schoenberg style. Its resemblance to movie scores (the field into which the more populist American and European composers were moving with a vengeance at the time of its premiere) is neither accidental nor displeasing. The vocal lines are not extreme enough to put it out of the range of revival, though the enormous cast may be. (At least we don't have excessive unsingable high notes, often fallen back on by post-tonal composers to express extreme emotion because they have given up all other musical methods of expressing it - melody used to accomplish this, remember?)

The centerpiece of the opera, for pagan music-lovers, is the great witches' sabbath that ends Act II, a wonderfully sensuous (not merely discordant) scene in which a Puritan minister, tempted by the flesh (in particular the flesh of a lovely Cavalier aristocrat, Lady Marigold Sandys, whom he identifies with the goddess Ashtoreth - Astarte, folks!), falls utterly and gives himself up to demonic allegiance. What with religious hypocrisy running rampant in the U.S. these days, such a scene might with profit (prophet?) be presented by regional opera companies fed up with the lack of controversy under which they are forced to labor. Anyway, it's great fun for a pagan, and I'd love to see it staged somewhere. True, American witches may have problems with the final scene, in which local Indians attack the Puritan village, burn it to the ground, and scalp a couple of folks before being driven off.

Heartily recommended. (Why doesn't Botstein put this on?)

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