> Opera and Oratorio
Johnson, Sandy; Mack, Packer, Pleasant, Ward; Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers, Benjamin. English text. New World Records 80720 (2)
There was a time — the time of the Joplin-infused soundtrack to the 1973 movie The Sting, to be exact — when it seemed that Joplin's Treemonisha might sweep into the opera repertory. That didn't happen, of course, and if it ever is going to happen it will come about through this recording. Judith Sherman has produced and edited this performance on a level as high as anything ever offered to the public. Rick Benjamin has provided exhaustive and interesting program notes and has reconstructed a plausible orchestration for the entire score, basing it on a standard group of instruments known in Joplin's day as the "Eleven & Pno." This, Benjamin writes, was a five-year project born of dissatisfaction with the overblown orchestrations of the 1975 Houston Grand Opera production. Benjamin also conducts the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra with a sure instinct for style and color. A lot of this has to do with the way long syncopated notes are played at full value. There is a narrow line between finding the appropriate expression of the music and trying to turn it into something it can't support. Benjamin's satisfying approach is especially rewarding in the instrumental introduction to Act III, which is sweet and charming without being cloying, but he has also found the color for each number in the score. The finale, "A Real Slow Drag," is the one famous moment. Under Benjamin, it doesn't pummel us to death, but it doesn't ever let up either.
Then there is the work itself. Nobody listening to the score would ever guess that Joplin spoke English from the way he set it to music. The finale of Act II, "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn," is such a fantastic tune that Joplin understandably wanted to feature it, but it defies any association with text. Act II is only fourteen minutes long, but it requires a scene change, and somehow there is still time for a diversion of dancing bears. In Act I, Treemonisha's mother, Monisha, has a long narrative set to a waltz tune (not one of the opera's best) followed almost immediately by a long recitative. The preacher, the delightfully named Parson Alltalk, does a number in Act I and then disappears for the rest of the show. It's a mistake to fault Treemonisha for not being Janácˇek's Jenu˚fa. (The two operas, written four years apart, each involve a heroine who believes deeply in the power of learning and who has to make a conscious decision about whether it is possible to truly forgive.) But it is difficult to imagine how a production could make this into a plausible dramatic piece as opposed to a collection of numbers.
Joplin set up many hurdles for the singers. Robert Mack, the sweet-voiced Andy, comes off best. The vocally ungrateful writing for Remus proves a stretch for Chauncey Packer, whose number "Wrong Is Never Right" goes on at great length with every note of the vocal part doubled in the orchestra. AnnMarie Sandy's operatic mezzo is not the right fit for Monisha. As the titular heroine, Anita Johnson is at her best in her higher-flying scenes of benevolence and her insinuating beginning of "A Real Slow Drag." As a bonus track, we hear Joplin's grandniece LaErma White reading the preface to the libretto. It's a mark of Benjamin's skill that this evocative performance doesn't make the music sound false.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN