Without doubt this new recording of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha
is both welcome and significant. The conductor Rick Benjamin
is the driving force behind the project and the performance
oozes dedication, love and profound knowledge of the genre.
This is not Treemonisha's first complete recording
- that honour goes to the Houston Grand Opera's version from
the mid-1970s released on DG. It is however the first to try
to reflect the performance practices of Joplin's time and reinstate
the work as he conceived it and not as it was altered for Houston.
Joplin died in 1917 aged approximately 50 having spent most
of his last decade writing and trying to promote this work.
It is significant on several levels: it is the only opera in
existence to take as its subject the Reconstruction Era (post-emancipation)
African-American experience let alone to have been written by
a member of that community who had lived through it. Stylistically
it is also unique for incorporating elements of the music of
that community little else of which has survived. So even if
in a diluted or stylised form the use of 'field hollers', spirituals,
hymns and even African dances provides a sense of the cultural
patchwork Joplin grew up experiencing around Texarkana - which
is also the setting for the piece. That and the date of the
action - 1884 - emphasises the autobiographical nature of the
Can a work be important but not great? The many passionate supporters
of Treemonisha believe it to be both. Its importance,
significance and indeed its function as a tribute to the indomitable
human spirit is not in doubt for a second but as the grand opera
is aspires to be surely not. If you read some of the estimations
and reviews of this work that statement appears almost sacrilegious
but the facts are simple. Joplin provided his own libretto and
whatever the charms of much of the music the plot, in structure
and line-by-line content it is little short of inept. There
are three acts - throughout there is remarkably little drama
- the peril of Treemonisha's abduction is comfortably negotiated
by half way through the central act which means there is no
drama at all in the third. Aside from the eponymous heroine
the other characters revolve around her - there are no sub-plots
or any kind of character development at all. That Joplin had
studied European operas is clear, his use of various narrative
and plot devices in their undigested form indicates an enthusiasm
for them if not a deep understanding of their dramatic function.
As a for instance; Monisha - Treemonisha's mother - having meticulously
kept from her daughter for the last 18 years that she is in
fact an orphan found under yonder tree "spills the beans"
when Treemonisha goes to pick some leaves of the self-same tree.
This prompts Monisha - in one of the opera's most extended passages
running to nearly ten minutes - in best operatic fashion to
relate the circumstances of her daughter's childhood. Treemonisha's
entire response to this shattering revelation - eighteen years
of life having to be reassessed and relationships with parents
altered forever is; "I am greatly surprised to know you
are not my mother." Moreover, this is never referred to
again. Yes, the work deals with the fight between superstition,
ignorance and education and other elements of the human experience
such as love and trust and faith. But were one to listen to
this with an utterly innocent ear, understanding the plot but
little else, would you feel it to be a satisfying operatic experience?
I would think not. Too much allowance has to be made for the
context of its conception and for the trials of its composer.
I don't want to have to contextualise every piece every time
I listen to it. Does a piece have value plus because composer
A was deaf or composer B was dying when it was written or composer
C comes from a community not associated with that particular
art form? I would say not.
Joplin's achievements are to have written a through-composed
work that contains several stand-out sequences of real memorable
fibre. Given the quality of his piano rags that should not be
much of a surprise. Interestingly the best passages are those
when Joplin writes in the ragging idiom for which he remains
best known. Hence, the big set piece chorus numbers are foot-tappingly
memorable; "We're goin around" [CD1 track 4], "Aunt
Dinah Has Blowed de Horn" [CD 1 track 18], and the closing
"A Real Slow Drag" [CD2 track 9]. Other numbers too
are hugely impressive and atmospheric - "Good Advice"
[CD1 track 9] features the local parson preaching to his flock
- fantastically apt and atmospheric chorus work here. There’s
a tangible sense of revivalist fervour in the call and response
of the scene. Likewise the close harmony "We will rest
awhile" [D2 track 16] is a real charmer. Importantly none
of the above-mentioned sections are involved in plot development.
They all add to atmosphere and context but not to drama. When
faced with parts of the libretto that call for plot development
through arias or quasi-recitatives the level of Joplin's inspiration
falls right off. For much of the time here the music more closely
represents Victor Herbert-esque European influenced operetta.
The one time it rises to more than that is Joplin's homage to
Wagner's Tannhauser - "When villains ramble far
and near" [CD2 track 6] which apart from being a rather
good tune has a sweep to it that elsewhere quite eluded Joplin.
I cannot praise too highly the work of Rick Benjamin and his
simply brilliant Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. Benjamin was responsible
over a period of years for producing the new arrangements the
orchestra play. Although Joplin published - at his own expense
- a full vocal score there are no extant orchestral parts. Gunther
Schuller and William Bolcom produced the orchestrations for
the Houston production but Benjamin persuasively argues that
these are too full - indeed bloated - for what Joplin would
have had in mind. Instead Benjamin utilises what he calls "Eleven
and a piano". This is in fact a string quartet plus flute
- doubling piccolo - clarinet, two cornets, trombone and a rhythm
section of bass and kit/percussion with a piano/conductor. Benjamin
in the extensive essays with the discs - much more on that later
- argues that this is a uniquely American pit orchestra. Actually
far from it. In fact this is the archetypal line-up of all
light music orchestrations from about 1870 onwards. Look at
the front of any orchestral set and you will see it listed usually
to the left as "SO" [small orchestra] of exactly this
"11 and a piano" with the "FO" [full orchestra]
extras listed to the left; oboe, bassoon, horns, extra brass.
I suspect that although Joplin might have expected
to hear 11 and a piano he would have hoped to hear
the markedly fuller sound of a full orchestration in the style
of Schuller's Houston version. This was, after all, Joplin's
stab at a grand opera. One very interesting choice that Benjamin
makes is to avoid using the banjo - which Schuller features
a lot. Benjamin's argument - and it’s a persuasive one - is
that this instrument so embodies the negative image of 'minstrelsy'
for Black composers that not one of those composers ever used
it in their own theatre scores. At the time Robert Russell Bennett
was orchestrating Showboat in the late 1920s he had
no such doubts and it does embody that score to remarkable effect.
The other instrument which does capture the spirit of that age
so well - and I miss it here - is the euphonium/tuba. Often
the string bass player would double the brass instrument too
- in essence playing the same notes but the tuba giving extra
'oomph' to the dance numbers.
So having commented on the piece and the edition what of the
performance and recording? Things start exceptionally well.
The orchestra is simply superb. I really cannot praise the players
too highly for their technical brilliance but also for their
perfect understanding of the idiom. This is far from simple
music - especially in Benjamin's demanding arrangements - but
they play it with a perfect blend of technique and stylishness.
Neither is it easy to 'hit' the right tempi in this music. Some
will tell you "Ragtime must never be played fast"
so along it dirges while others treat it as an excuse for virtuoso
display. As ever the truth lies in the middle; Joplin authored
the ‘never too fast’ injunction because there were piano-playing
competitions at the time where the entire remit was to play
faster and louder. Benjamin is pitch perfect in every number
with his choice of speed and, more importantly, feel. The engineering
is ideal too with the players set into a warm theatrical acoustic.
Likewise, the chorus although small are characterful, fully
engaged and help in no small way make this audio recording feel
like a real performance. My major disappointment with the set
is the quality of the singing of the principals. Anita Johnson
in the title role is good without being exceptional. AnnMarie
Sandy who sings the extended role of Treemonisha's mother has
a worn and unattractive voice that sounds simply over-parted.
Likewise Frank Ward Jr. who sings the role of Treemonisha's
father Ned has a voice I do not particularly like. Indeed, for
a style of performance that seems to be seeking something lighter
and more fluent than full-scale opera I do not understand the
casting of 'big' voices. The use of wide and unvaried vibrato
grates for me. Benjamin comments on avoiding the over-production
that he felt was a major problem with the famous Houston production
which was in danger of overwhelming the slight storyline with
big orchestrations, an inflexible chorus and a too operatic
approach. I am sure there are dozens of singers in America who
could have sung this piece with a lighter touch but instead
we have a vocal style quite at odds with the instrumental one.
Benjamin does cite the need for 'powerful' voices in the pre-microphone
days but that is a practical rather than artistic necessity
of the day that does not need to be copied here.
Returning to the Houston recording - now available at mid-price
- both sets have their merits. Houston has uniformly better
soloists and hearing Willard White sing "When villains
ramble ..." the song is lifted to a completely different
level. Carmen Balthorp and Betty Allen in the two main female
roles are better singers before one considers details of interpretation
or nuance. I still like the Schuller orchestrations - guiltily
pleasurable banjo and all - but Benjamin's group is exceptional.
Likewise the clearly larger Houston chorus are good and full
of energy but Benjamin's chorus has greater individual character.
Benjamin rightly questions the characterisation of the conjurer
Zodzetrick for Houston as a kind of precursor to Sportin' Life
in Porgy and Bess and his conjurer is better characterised.
One element that neither set can encompass is the visual - it
has to be acknowledged that dance as much as singing was a crucial
social element of these communities so its enforced absence
in an audio recording limits the overall theatrical impact.
I should mention too that there is a third - single disc - set
available from the Ophelia Ragtime Orchestra which I have not
heard but in containing less than 45 minutes of music it has
to be, by definition, incomplete.
There are some extras with the new set which merit serious consideration.
In an appendix Benjamin has written his own bows music which
is in fact a period-style One-step on the opera's themes. Its
one final chance to salute the brilliance of the Paragon Ragtime
Orchestra's players. Also in the appendix is Joplin's own preface
to the libretto read by his closest surviving relative, his
grandniece Mrs LaErma White who still lives in Texarkana. Her
reading is immensely touching; dignified and unaffected. The
other major extra - which I have deliberately left mentioning
to last is the sheer quality of the presentation of this two
disc set. The discs come with what can only be described as
a small book. The format is effectively CD sized with slip-inserts
in the front and back hard-covers for the 2 CDs. And a book
is really what you get. No description I can give will really
give you a sense of the quality and care lavished on its production.
The first 66 pages of closely typed but beautifully clear [English
only] text are given over to an extended series of essays by
Benjamin articulating aspects of Joplin's life, the origin of
the opera, its latter-day history and the various artistic choices
he made during its restoration and why. Interspersed with the
text are numerous photographs, playbills, and newspaper excerpts.
The next five pages are of performers’ biographies followed
by 21 pages of the complete libretto - including the aforementioned
preface - again in English only. The final 10 pages include
a valuable suggested bibliography as well as production photographs.
Without doubt this is the best presented, most interesting and
most carefully produced 'booklet' I have ever seen for any CD
or indeed LP. I dread to think what it added to the production
costs of the set alone! Even the quality of the paper used and
the subtly varied colours and type faces are a joy.
I have nothing but admiration for the dedication and passion
that imbues every element of this set. Such is the devotion
of all concerned to the work that I do feel something of a nay-sayer
not to engage wholeheartedly in the adulation. But I return
to my point of the difference between important and great. The
sincerity of Joplin's aims is never in doubt and there are several
enjoyable passages but I cannot help feeling that if he had
been spared to produce more stage music this would be seen as
a transitional work. It’s Gershwin's Blue Monday without
Porgy & Bess or Kern's Sally without Showboat.
Neither Gershwin nor Kern can claim the moral/ethnic high ground
or autobiographical insight of Joplin but crucially both were
men with great and extended practical experience of the theatre
and the business of theatre gained before writing their greatest