Opera review: Toronto premiere of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha a significant cultural event

This is a guest review by Toronto soprano Mary Lou Fallis:

Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha had its Canadian Premiere at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall on Tuesday night. It was the last concert of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s season.

Under the baton of their founder Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, who oversaw the whole performance with affection and aplomb, the chorale sounded as tight as I have ever heard them. All choir members sang the opera from memory, giving the chorus scenes an intensity usually missing from a concert performance.

And to start the evening, pianist Ed Connell gave a fine account of four rags with the proper mix of discipline and abandon.

We know Joplin (c. 1867-1917) for his famous rags like “the Maple Leaf” and “Solitude,” but his opera was one of the first full-length dramatic stage works created by an African American artist for African American performers and audiences.

Treemonisha was little known and received only a handful of performances during Scott Joplin’s lifetime. The Houston Grand Opera did a fully staged  production in 1975 and released a cast recording in 1982.

The April issue of Gramophone Magazine reviewed another recent performance, so it is getting more attention currently.

The plot involves a young woman Treemonisha who is discovered under a tree as a baby in her adoptive parent’s yard and, thanks to the foresight of her mother and father, becomes educated in a rural area full of superstition and prejudice.

After some narrow escapes from attempts on her life and strong opposition from the backward-looking factions in the community, Treemonisha becomes the leader of her people and shows that education defeats ignorance and that women can be in positions of authority and power.

The whole community rejoices in being free of the conjurers and the spells of superstition and looks forward to a life of restoring an oppressed people to a full and just humanity.

Simple but effective.

Joplin was well ahead of his time in depicting a strong black woman as a heroine and leading character. The opera takes place in 1884 as the 18-year-old Treemonisha  starts  her career as a healer and  teacher.

Most American women did not get the vote until 1920 and, by the time Joplin finished the opera in 1911, the horrors of white supremacy and intimidation tactics were on the rise. This ominous feeling of not being safe imbues the whole opera with tension from the overture to the end.

The music is by turns disjointed, lyrical, derivative, original and moving. Joplin weaves together the spiritual, a gospel service, barbershop, 18th and 19th century opera-like arias, Verdi, vaudeville and Native American music. I even heard echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Gounod and Mendelssohn oratorio.

All of this music would have been in Joplin’s ears at the time — and they were well-trained classical ears. It should have been a mess. But somehow it all sort of makes sense in the end, and we are swept along by the originality of this talented composer of optimism and vision.

Neema Bickersteth as Treemonisha, gave a still, beautiful and dignified performance with lots of vocal colour, though more animation and feeling would have helped her portrayal.

Denise Williams and Christopher Wilson, as her parents, were the most seasoned performers. It showed in their scenes together, creating some of the best singing and very touching moments in their duets and individual arias.

In Paul Williamson’s star turn as Remus, his aria “Wrong is Never Right”  brought down the house with a  strong lyric tenor and earnest preaching.

There were some mic problems —  the sound was sometimes muffled and diction was not clear much of the time. The words were printed in the programme, thank goodness.

From their position onstage, the pit orchestra overpowered some of the soloists.

Some of the black characters were portrayed by white singers. Although this was admirably colourblind casting, I found it confusing and sometimes disturbing to hear the black dialect sung by obvious white guys.

More modest roles that made an impression were Lucy (Leonie Hentschel), Zodzetrick (Jeremy Carver-James), Foreman (Lucas Marchand), Parson Alltalk (Herve Kaniki), as well as Graham Robinson, Benjamin MacDonald and David Yung.

The Barbershop version of “We Will Rest Awhile” was a comic highlight.

The chorale was at its best  with “Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn” as well as “Frolic of the Bears,” and “We Will Trust You as Our Leader.” The finale of the famous “A Real Slow Drag” produced an honest and uplifting end, bringing the capacity audience to their feet.

This was an exotic evening and certainly a cultural achievement in the musical history of this city. It deserves more than one performance and more audiences should hear this interesting piece of music theatre.

Mary Lou Fallis


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