Scott JOPLIN (1868?-1917)
Treemonisha - an Opera in Three Acts (1911)
Treemonisha (soprano) - Anita Johnson
Monisha (soprano) - AnnMarie Sandy
Ned (bass) - Frank Ward Jr.
Zodzetrick (high baritone) - Edward Pleasant
Remus (tenor) - Chauncey Packer
Andy (tenor) - Robert Mack
Parson Alltalk (bass) - Darren Stokes
Lucy (soprano) - Janinah Burnett
Prologue spoken by Mrs LaErma White
The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers/Rick Benjamin
rec. American Academy of Arts & Letters, New York, USA, 31 May and 1-2 June 2011
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80720-2 [53:19 + 45:47]
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 work.
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. Thereís 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 itís 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 Ďnever too fastí 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 performersí 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. Itís 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 works.
Oozes dedication, love and profound knowledge of the genre.