OPERA NEWS - Treemonisha
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JOPLIN: Treemonisha

spacer Balthrop, B. Allen, Johnson; Rayam, White, Harney, Hicks, Duckens, Ransom, Gazemore, Pierson; Houston Grand Opera, Original Cast Orchestra and Chorus, Schuller. English text. Pentatone PTC 5186 221 (2)

American Classic

Pentatone affirms the glories of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha with its SACD remastering of Houston Grand Opera’s historic recording.

Recordings Treemonisha cover 815

Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime,” wrote two operas. His first, A Guest of Honor (1903), is, sadly, lost to history. His second, Treemonisha (1910), survived only as a piano score, and that wasn’t unearthed until 1970. In 1975, Gunther Schuller created a new orchestral version of the work for a production by Houston Grand Opera, directed by Frank Corsaro, which resulted in a two-LP set from Deutsche Grammophon. That recording was digitally transferred and released as a CD in 1992; the current version has been remastered in the multichannel SACD format, which allows the original four-channel recording to be heard to maximum advantage. 

Large sections of Treemonisha are gorgeous. Infectious two-step numbers such as “We’re Goin’ Around,” “Aunt Dinah Has Blowed the Horn” and the brilliantly inexorable finale, “A Real Slow Drag,” are clearly the work of the composer of “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” but Joplin’s ambitions went far beyond merely writing a ragtime opera; there are touches of musical dramatization out of Weber and Wagner, as well as operetta-ish echoes of Sullivan, Lehár and Kálmán. The choruses, arias, recitatives and small ensemble pieces comfortably incorporate spirituals, hymns and call-and-response gospel. In brief, Joplin successfully created a nearly seamless merger of African–American folk/blues/hymn tradition and European classical opera that predates Porgy and Bess by about a quarter of a century.

What’s more, Joplin’s themes are startlingly relevant. The eighteen-year-old Treemonisha is abducted by a wicked gang of conjurers, threatened with great harm, then rescued by her friend Remus, disguised as the devil. Treemonisha’s family and friends are bent on vengeance, but Treemonisha insists on forgiveness and proceeds to tout the virtues of knowledge versus ignorance, education versus superstition. Overwhelmed by these powerful messages, the people unanimously declare Treemonisha their leader. That’s right: a quietly charismatic, intelligent young black woman who preaches forgiveness and condemns ignorance will show the way — in 1884, no less (the year of the opera’s setting).

Carmen Balthrop sings the title role with enough purity, moral authority and celestial vocal beauty to convince any group that she should lead them. Betty Allen, as Treemonisha’s mother, does a stunning job with “The Sacred Tree,” which tells of Treemonisha’s origins as a foundling and shows off Joplin’s opulent gift for melody. Tenor Curtis Rayam, as the heroic rescuer Remus, delivers the compelling (if slightly tautological) concert waltz number “Wrong is Never Right” with fervent, confident artistry. Bass-baritone Willard White, as Ned (Treemonisha’s father), affirms the sentiment with his full-throated, reverberating “When Villains Ramble Far and Near.” As Parson Alltalk, Edward Pierson delivers the exhortations of “Good Advice” with glowing vocal magnetism; the spendidly opulent ensemble responses are a high point for the chorus (and of the piece). Kenneth Hicks leads “We’re Goin’ Around” with irresistible exuberance. Among the bad guys, Ben Harney is amusingly unctuous peddling his snake oil, and Dorceal Duckens makes a menacing impression with his granite-like bass-baritone. Raymond Bazemore lends his distinctively marbled bass to “Superstition,” a conjurer’s ode to various beliefs of the gullible.

Composer/conductor/arranger/historian/jazz musician Schuller is the hero of this recording. Schuller turned Joplin’s self-published piano–vocal score into the visionary, grandly scored operatic version that is magnificently captured here; he conducts a clean and precise yet sweepingly passionate performance. Pentatone’s sonic update reveals that Treemonisha is (despite Joplin’s occasionally clunky libretto) a noble, ravishing and shockingly timely work, a musically and thematically resonant masterpiece in a category all its own. spacer 

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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