Welcome to Merry Mount.
It's 17th century New England. We are Puritans. In the beginning of the opera our young preacher, Wrestling Bradford, exhorts us to reclaim the New World from the forces of Satan. But he’s struggling with his own demons, tormented by erotic dreams of a goddess named Astoreth. A church elder persuades Bradford that he’ll find peace in marriage to his daughter, Plentiful Tewke. Bradford agrees and wants to be married right away, but Plentiful persuades him to wait a week.
Then a gaggle of our kids notice a funny stranger, Jack Prence. He hails from a group of Cavaliers who plan to found a new colony devoted to pleasure -- Merry Mount. We (the Puritans) are outraged. We arrest Prence, but he's rescued by a feisty and beautiful woman, Lady Marigold Sandys, another Cavalier. Her arrival is a bit of a shock; Bradford sees in her Astoreth, the goddess who haunts his dreams. Battle ensues.
We accuse the Cavaliers of heresy, and the Cavaliers accuse us of treason. Bradford, still infatuated with Marigold, agrees to a truce. But when he learns that she intends to marry a Cavalier named Sir Gower Lackland, he makes plans for us to attack Merry Mount.
* * * * *
I’m in New York City, marking time before today’s dress rehearsal and tonight’s performance of Merry Mount at Carnegie Hall. Yesterday hundreds of musicians made the trip from Rochester. As we slipped into the Lincoln Tunnel, I looked around in the semi-darkness of the bus and wondered at the power of art to bring strangers together: the teacher, the scientist, the librarian, a computer programmer, there’s even a grape specialist taking time out of life to sing in this special event with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Our challenge as choristers is to convey the religious fanaticism of Puritans. Not just the darkness, but the light. The rapture of being in love with God.
(Interestingly, some of the singers are visiting the 9/11 memorial this morning.)
Conductor Michael Christie is milking every drop of Romantic excess from Howard Hanson’s score. His interpretation is more indulgent, more fluid that what I heard on a recording by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. Christie’s gestures are clear and confident, and he’s pulling canyons of sound from the orchestra. (Maybe too much? There’s some anxiety behind the scenes that the RPO is drowning out the singers. We’ll find out today at Carnegie Hall.)
I’m singing in the soprano section. The music is not difficult, but it’s athletic and takes stamina. We sing lots of extended high notes, passages that roll on and roll, higher and higher, louder and louder, often with words underscoring the plot with horror and rage.
Tonight all of the musicians from Rochester will share a special kind of religion, reaching for perfection in Carnegie Hall.
You can hear it live at 7:30 p.m. on FM 91.5, streaming at wxxi.org.