Rochester Philharmonic/Merry Mount, Carnegie Hall, New York – review

Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount represents a potentially intriguing exploration of Puritan fanaticism, amorous obsession and cruel demonism in 17th-century Massachusetts. When introduced at the mighty Met in 1934 it earned instant approbation from audiences, if not from critics.

The charismatic baritone Lawrence Tibbett portrayed the central faux-saintly sinner, characteristically named Wrestling Bradford. None less than Tullio Serafin manned the podium. After nine performances, however, the opera disappeared, and it has been ignored virtually everywhere of note since then.

Under the circumstances, one should be grateful to the Spring for Music Festival for hosting a musical revival on Wednesday under the auspices of the Rochester Philharmonic. Situated in upstate New York, Rochester is home to the splendid Eastman School of Music. And Eastman, not incidentally, was guided for 40 years by Howard Hanson. Ergo, this was an act of homage.

It also was a profound disappointment. The neo-romantic score emerges turgid and cliché-ridden, also bloated. Even more damaging, it sounds loud, loud, loud, nonstop. Although Hanson may have created a few neat choruses and set-pieces, he succumbed to crippling bombast at every clangorous turn. Balance problems were further aggravated by stationing all the sprawling forces on stage. The singers might have been better heard if the orchestra had been muted in a pit. Sadly, Carnegie has no pit.

The libretto, pre-written by Richard L. Stokes with no particular composer in mind, dabbles in stilted melodramatic piffle decorated with poetic claptrap. Although the lofty language tries to ape biblical eloquence, it just cloys.

The performance was, if nothing else, ambitious. Michael Christie, a guest conductor, enforced momentum enthusiastically. The youthful Eastman choir chirped brightly, and the Rochester orchestra roared deftly. The large, uneven cast was dominated by the robust baritone Richard Zeller, apparently unfazed by the anti-hero’s endless self-pity and cruel tessitura.

The proceedings began, as is customary in this series, with annoying welcome-home palaver led by an oh-so-folksy radio announcer. In retrospect, it may have been the most successful part of the long evening.

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