Wake Forest University's Secrest Artists Series presented the East Coast premiere of a new version of Scott Joplin's folk-opera Treemonisha in Wait Chapel on October 27. In 1896, the composer sought to improve his musical technique and attended the George R. Smith College for Negroes. Afterward, he began to issue, with the publisher John Stark, the numerous piano pieces that earned him the sobriquet "the king of ragtime." Joplin's life-long focus was to elevate to a par with classical music what had been a largely improvised folk genre. Early on, he became obsessed with creating a ragtime opera. He moved to New York from St. Louis in 1907 in order to create and produce his second stage work, Treemonisha, composed in 1908-11 and orchestrated in 1915, but he was unable to find backers or a publisher. At his own expense, he published the piano score and mounted a poorly-received concert performance that used only piano accompaniment. His original orchestration was lost, and the opera had to wait until January 28, 1972 for its premiere, in Atlanta. That version used an orchestration by noted composer T. J. Anderson. Other orchestrations were done by William Bolcom and Gunther Schuller, and DGG issued a recording of the latter. These versions call for fairly large forces, similar to the resources that might be found in traditional European operas.
In New Grove II (online), Andrew Stiller draws attention to the fact that "The identification of ragtime as a pop genre and Joplin as a 'minority' composer has tended to obscure the fact that Treemonisha is the earliest musically significant opera by an American (apart from Gottshalk's one-act Escenas Campestres, 1860), and the earliest in an identifiably modern idiom."
Rick Benjamin's new orchestration reflects a desire to recreate the work using the "regulation" twelve-piece theatre orchestra of the period. Rather than "grand opera," Benjamin sees the work as "an amalgamation of the well-established American traditions of vaudeville, tap shows, melodramas, and minstrelsy, all held together by Joplin's marvelous music."
I frankly found the recording of the Schuller version of Treemonisha rather tame and boring, lacking the snap I remember from his pioneering ragtime orchestra recordings. Benjamin's edition wins hands down, communicating rhythmic verve along with a wide palette of colors and timbres.
Benjamin drew a lively and subtly-balanced performance from his small, skilled ensemble. A string quartet and a double bass are joined by a flute, a clarinet, a trombone, two mellow cornets, a piano, and a remarkable battery of drums and other percussion instruments. Meighan Stoops played her numerous clarinet solos with marvelous breath control and warm tone. Concertmistress Yuko Naito and cellist Jane O'Hara had significant solos in different arias that did much to heighten dramatic impact. Adding considerably to the mix of colors in the ensemble was Leslie Cullen’s doubling on both flute and piccolo. Trombonist Gilles Bernard and Kyle Resnick and C.J. Camerieri, cornets, worked wonders as they played with extraordinary sensitivity, often using very quiet dynamics, rarely encountered in brasses, producing glowing and mellow blended sound that was very special. Most fascinating of all were the magical and quiet, subtle sounds conjured up by percussionist Kerry Meads. He also made a big impact with a small thunder sheet. All twelve musicians played with extraordinarily tight ensemble.
Treemonisha is hardly the only opera that suffers from a weak or tepid libretto. With its conflicts downplayed and its uplifting moral tone, I could not help but think it would be apt for a vacation Bible school. I wonder how well it plays outside the Southern Bible Belt – here, at least, citizens of all races share some common religious culture....
Found crying under a tree, a baby girl named Treemonisha was raised by Monisha and Ned, a childless couple left "in charge" by white owners who had abandoned the plantation after the Civil War ("The Late Unpleasantness"). The opera opens when the educated 18-year-old girl comes into conflict with the colorful Zodzetrick, one of the conjurers who exploit superstitious locals by selling them "Bags of Luck." The conjurers kidnap Treemonisha and plan to throw her into a wasp's nest. She is rescued when her student – and love interest – Remus dresses in a scarecrow's outfit and frightens off the conjurers. The locals capture Zodzerick and are about to thrash him roundly when Treemonisha intervenes, advocating forgiveness.
All the soloists and members of the small chorus had pleasant voices – some were better, still. There was no lack of strong characterization. The most finished voice was the bright high soprano of Rita Addico-Cohen, who portrayed Treemonisha. Her diction was consistently clear and her high notes were on dead center. Miking of the singers sometimes created a "sonic halo" around several soloists and may have muddied their lines. AnnMarie Sandy, as Monisha, has a warm, low mezzo-soprano voice. Baritone Frank Ward, Jr. brought fine comic timing and an infinite variety of facial expression to the roles of Ned and Parson Alltalk; there was more than a little of Don Basilio about the latter. As Remus, Joseph LeBlanc, with a somewhat tight but well-projected tenor voice, gave a winning performance. Combining the grace of a dancer with a stock villain's body language, baritone Edward Pleasant was most entertaining as the conjurer Zodzetrick. Mel LeRoy's solid, well-rounded baritone voice suited the role of Simon, the chief conjurer. Smaller parts were taken by Trevor B. Smith (Andy) and Robert Hughes (Cephus); they also sang in the eight-member chorus.
Four WFU students had roles in the performance: Anna Banerjea created a pleasing choreography for dancers Joan Pharr, Cara Ray, and Jamie Patterson, who, dressed in bear suits, swirled about and pirouetted in the ballet, "Frolic of the Bears.
A variety of slow and fast rags, all delightful, are heard throughout the opera. A ring dance is a highlight of the episode of the Corn Huskers. "Good Advice," which features Parson Alltalk, found the ensemble reacting like a traditionally lively Black church congregation, with calls and witnessing. The musical accompaniment is quite at odds with the "goody-good" pabulum that is Joplin's text. Barber-shop-quartet harmonies, beautifully blended, were prominent in "We Will Rest Awhile," a personal favorite. My ears suddenly heard a familiar Viennese rhythm: I had not considered the possibility of a ragtime waltz. At the end, the entire cast spread across the stage to dance and sing "A Real Slow Drag," led by Addico-Cohen's glowing voice; she is a most winning Treemonisha.
Richard D. Thompson was responsible for the very effective staging and choreography of the opera, aside from the "Frolic" dance, and the simple but functional set was by William P. Muller.