Anita Johnson (Treemonisha), Janinah Burnett (Lucy), AnnMarie Sandy (Monisha), Frank Ward, Jr (Ned), Chauncey Packer (Remus), Edward Pleasant (Zodzetrick), Todd Payne (Simon), Robert Mack (Andy), Darren Stokes (Parson Alltalk), Frederick Jackson (Luddud), Phumzile Sojola (Cephus), The Paragon Singers, The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, c. Rick Benjamin. New World Records 80720-2 (two CDs)
By Christopher Ballantine
Treemonisha arguably ranks high on the list of operas still awaiting a proper reckoning. Laudably, it is the intention of this New World Records release to create the circumstances for just such a revaluation. The project has taken some two decades to realize and is the signal achievement of the conductor and scholar Rick Benjamin, renowned for his work in the ‘archaeology’ and recreation of American music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His accompanying 61-page essay is both an excellent example of social history and a powerful piece of advocacy of Joplin’s 1911 opera; in it he argues for the work as a unique document of black music and experience of the Reconstruction Era. Since Joplin intended his audience to be those members of the middle and working class who frequented music halls, he also involved the conventions they were familiar with: vaudeville, musical comedy, Victorian melodrama. His goal was to open the way to the creation, for the first time, of an operatic repertoire for black performers. No wonder he insisted so strongly that this was not a ragtime opera. In part because its values were ahead of its time, Treemonisha remained marginal. Then, as if the piece were destined for oblivion, Joplin’s own orchestration of it was destroyed in 1962. Best known of the attempts to re-orchestrate it was Gunter Schuller’s, for Houston Grand Opera in 1975, later released on Deutsche Grammophon. Though such reconstructions were welcome for the attention they drew to the work, they were scantily researched, paid little attention to relevant historical performance practice, took unwarranted liberties, and simply confounded the piece even further. Alert to these problems, Benjamin began work in 1993 on a project to deliver a new performing edition of the opera: a reconstruction that would be as accurate, complete and historically authentic as possible. Most radically, Benjamin took this to mean that he would have to recreate the operatic ‘soundscape’ Joplin had configured for his medium-sized halls and theatres—one based on the so-called ‘Eleven & Pno.’ ensemble widely used in American variety and vaudeville theatres between about 1870 and 1920. Wind instruments, notably cornets and slide trombone, are the engine of this small orchestra; the tiny string contingent is there mainly to add colour.
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