Recording of August 2012: Joplin: Treemonisha

Joplin: Treemonisha
Anita Johnson, soprano; AnnMarie Sandy, mezzo-soprano; Chauncey Packer, Robert Mack, tenors; Edward Pleasant, high baritone; Darren Stokes, Frank Ward Jr., basses; others; Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers, Rick Benjamin
New World 80720-2 (2 CDs). 2012. Judith Sherman, prod., eng. DDD. TT: 99:06
Performance ****
Sonics *****

The great ragtime composer Scott Joplin had grander ambitions than just the magnificent miniatures for piano he's famous for. When he died, in 1917, he had spent much of the previous 10 years polishing and campaigning for his full-length opera, Treemonisha, the piano-vocal score for which he had published in 1911. Joplin had studied classical composition and notation with a German scholar who had happened to settle in his hometown of Texarkana, Arkansas; lore has it that Julius Weiss gave young Joplin lessons in exchange for Mrs. Joplin's services as a laundress. Treemonisha is through-composed, with sophisticated harmonies clearly influenced by European teachings, but it also incorporates early-jazz beats, proto-blues sounds, odd syncopations, occasional Victorian-type ballads, African-American folk and pop music, and moments that recall field hollers and revival meetings—in short, all of the music of the Black experience in America is represented. The amalgam is strange, wonderful, and vastly entertaining. Treemonisha is also the only extant opera concerned with the post–Civil War African-American experience written by someone who had experienced it firsthand. Joplin also wrote the libretto, which is stunningly naãve; the opera will never be confused with a masterpiece (it's no Boris Godunov or Don Giovanni), but it's an instant pleasure, and the more one listens, the richer it gets. And as a historical document, it's crucial.

This is not Treemonisha's first recording. In 1975, Gunther Schuller orchestrated the work Ö la grand opera, and it was presented at the Houston Grand Opera to great critical acclaim; indeed, I still love that recording, which Schuller conducted. But on this new set, conductor and scholar Rick Benjamin has attempted to perform the opera as it would have been heard 100 years ago, using what was then colloquially known as "eleven + pno": flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, two cornets (in place of trumpets), trombone, violin, viola, cello, double bass, period percussion, and piano. (Schuller used a banjo as well; Benjamin does not, arguing that Joplin would not have wanted anything so closely related to the minstrel tradition.) This does wonders for the work: where Schuller gave us big, rockin' effects, Benjamin offers transparency that allows Joplin's tunes to emerge, and makes the recitatives (there is no spoken dialogue) less stilted and more human.

The plot has a simple point: the way out of poverty and ignorance is education, not superstition. Treemonisha, our 18-year-old heroine (she was found under a tree by a childless couple, Ned and Monisha, and later loved to play there, hence her name), has just returned home after getting an education that Monisha secured for her by exchanging washing and ironing for lessons from a white lady who lived close enough to a schoolhouse. In the course of the opera, Treemonisha teaches the others not to believe in the local conjurers, Zodzetrick, Luddud, and Simon, who sell rabbits' feet and "luck-bags." The only tension arises when Treemonisha is kidnapped and is about to be thrown into a wasps' nest; she is rescued in the nick of time.

I said it was naïve, and I wasn't kidding; there is no subtext. The most blatantly demented example comes when, in a lengthy aria, Monisha finally tells Treemonisha about her background. One would expect the girl's world to be turned upside down, but her response is merely, "I am greatly surprised to know you are not my mother." Opera lovers may argue over whether this is on a par with Mélisande's reaction to being tortured by Golaud in Act III of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. After he's dragged her across the stage by her hair for 10 minutes, she sings, "Je ne suis pas heureuse" (I am not happy).

The performance is both inspired and inspiring. Benjamin's instincts for every number are correct; he presents each in the right tempo and mood, and with the right accompaniment. The very direct narratives ("The Sacred Tree") are just songs; the revival music sung by Parson Alltalk, featuring a call-and-response from the congregation, is atmospheric and sincere; the rollicking "We're Goin' Around" and "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn" will make you want to dance; the barbershop quartet "We Will Rest Awhile" evokes precisely its era; and the finale, "A Real Slow Drag," is sexy and infectious. Schuller used real opera singers; Benjamin's cast, while professionals, sing in a less overtly operatic style: They treat the music more intimately, more conversationally. But it's always good, and soprano Anita Johnson is superb as Treemonisha. The others are just right for their roles, despite not having great voices; their interactions sound absolutely genuine. Benjamin has done a great job. The sound has a perfect small-theater ambience.

These two CDs are accompanied by a 70-page booklet of great entertainment and historical interest, with vintage photographs and a complete libretto. Following the end of the opera, as bonuses, Mrs. LaErma White, Joplin's grandniece and closest living relative, reads Joplin's preface to the opera, and Rick Benjamin leads his own two-minute arrangement of themes from the opera in one-step tempo. A major, delightful release.—Robert Levine