Review: TREEMONISHA at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

This production runs through June 24

By: May. 23, 2023
Review: TREEMONISHA at Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis
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Last Saturday Opera Theatre of St. Louis premiered a new adaptation of Scott Joplin’s legendary opera Treemonisha.  It is a bright and worthy addition to our recent flurry of adoration of some of America’s major black composers;  the Black Rep closed their stunningly fine evening of Eubie Blake’s music three days earlier.

Treemonisha was written when Joplin had reached the pinnacle of his career in popular music.  He was the “King of Ragtime”.  But in his youth he’d had an education in classical music;  a German music professor, Julian Weiss, noting the boy’s gifts, had tutored him gratis for several years.  Joplin didn’t invent “ragtime”, but his deeper musical training enabled him to do for this black folk genre what Chopin had done for that Polish folk genre, the mazurka.  He brought it grace, sophistication, and subtlety.  And he gained international fame.

Then Joplin set out to prove to the world that a black composer, whose father had been a slave, could compete with the greatest of classical composers.  He ventured into opera.  His first effort (now lost) was Guest of Honor, a tribute to Booker T. Washington.  It was written in 1903. 

Later came Treemonisha.  He struggled valiantly to find funding for it, but he never lived to see a full production.  He published the piano/vocal score in 1911.

It lay idle for decades.

Then, in the ‘70’s, interest in ragtime and in Joplin revived.  That interest received a huge boost from The Sting (1974) and Marvin Hamlisch.   Joplin got a richly deserved great big hug from the world, and revivals of Treemonisha began.  But, since Joplin left us only the piano score, the opera has been variously re-orchestrated.  This OTSL production is an adaptation by composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton.

Treemonisha is not and never was a “ragtime opera”.  Musically, the bulk of the work is within the tradition of European 19th century opera.  There is much beautiful stuff, lovely arias, and really gorgeous sections for the chorus.  And (praise be) there is a good dose of more modern melody in songs that have that marvelous ragtime feel.  There’s a cakewalk, there’s gospel call-and-response.

The libretto, however, (which Joplin himself wrote) is simply not up to snuff.  A great composer;  a pretty sorry librettist.

The theme of the opera has surprising echoes of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  We are urged to toss off the burden of superstition and to raise ourselves by education and diligence.

The story is set in 1884 in a small poor village of former slaves in “an enchanted forest” near Texarkana.  These illiterate people are in the grip of superstition and of conjure-men, who sell them little red “bags of luck”.    

Young Treemonisha is the only person who has been taught to read.  She urges her friends to discard superstition and not to believe the threats or promises of the conjure-men.  In this role soprano Brandie Inez Sutton shows a voice that’s sweet and powerful and pure. 

She’s matched by baritone Justin Austin in the role of Remus, Treemonisha’s friend.  His is an impressively stalwart—even heroic—voice, showing remarkable uniformity over his entire range.  He gives such a sense of vocal ease. 

Other noteworthy performances are given by KS. Tichina Vaughn and Norman Garrett as Treemonisha’s adoptive parents, and by Amani Cole-Felder as Lucy. 

The role of Zodzetrick, the chief conjure-man, is sung by Phillip Bullock.  He gives the charlatan a delicious wickedness—and he wears that most exotic costume with real panache.

Marcel Reed gives us a strikingly lively Parson Alltalk.  He darts about the stage with a captivating sort of skip-prance and preaches to the village in a vigorous call-and-response number.

There’s a charming ring-dance, there are field songs.  At the baddie’s camp in the woods (after Treemonisha has been kidnapped) there is a bizarre scene of wild fantasy with almost bacchanalian dancing.  There are frolicking bears, glittering giant dragonflies, evil great wasps, witches, and a demon or two.  I was reminded of Falstaff’s night of punishment at the end of Merry Wives.

Treemonisha is rescued, the baddies are captured.  The village wants to punish them:     “We will punch and we will kick them very hard, very hard”.  But Treemonisha insists that the villagers should “just give them a severe lecture and let them freely go.”  (See what I meant about the libretto?)  Treemonisha is unanimously elected leader of the village.   

The finale is a quite wonderful “Real Slow Drag”.  Joplin always held that ragtime should never be played fast.  I long ago sensed this in things like “Solace”.   This “Real Slow Drag” utterly nails it.  He was so right!  It’s graceful and moving and luscious.  And it leads to . . . HAPPY ENDING.

The orchestra is composed of members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is under the direction of Maestro George Manahan, who maintains a lovely balance with the voices and delves into every nuance of the score...  

Marsha Ginsberg designed the set.  It’s strange, but effective and versatile.  A dozen or so black, barren trees (sometimes hanging in mid-air) provide the background.  Small shacks are rolled in and out as needed. 

Costumer Dede Ayite dresses the cast in various earth tones, richly but subtly varied.  Everything is perfectly in period and beautifully detailed.  The clothes look so very lived-in.  And all those remarkable fantasy costumes!  Wow!  Excellent work indeed.

Stage Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj handles this very large cast gracefully, though a time or two the great chorus seems merely lined up at the back.

Finally, as to the adaptation:  Among the various recent adaptations around the world some have tried to replicate what might have been Joplin’s own arranging style; some have expanded the orchestration to a very large orchestra;  some have shrunk it back; some have introduced African musical elements; some have “corrected” the dialect of the uneducated folks to avoid stereotypes; some have restored it for authenticity.  Composer Sneed and librettist Chilton have chosen to add a prologue and an epilogue—a framing device featuring Joplin himself and his second wife Freddie.  Her sister also appears.   (The actors go on to sing Treemonisha, Remus, and Lucy in the main story.) Now most scholars agree that Treemonisha was inspired by Freddie (who died ten weeks after their marriage).  A framing story showing their great love and Joplin’s intense struggle to complete his opera might be lovely.  But here, in the prologue, we see only gushing praise from Freddie and vast self-congratulation from Joplin, whom we see as an utterly unattractive, self-absorbed man.   The epilogue is more successful, with a touching visit from a ghostly Freddie/Treemonisha and hints of Joplin’s influence on subsequent music.

OTSL’s production of Treemonisha is well worth seeing.  It’s a world premiere, and another feather in the company’s cap.


Photo by Eric Woolsey/OTSL



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