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29 Aug 2019

Spectra Ensemble present Treemonisha at Grimeborn

‘We see him now as one of the most important creators of his generation, certainly comparable to Schoenberg.’ T.J. Anderson, who reconstructed the score of Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera, Treemonisha, for its first staged production in 1972, was probably rather over-enthusiastic in his assessment.

Spectra Ensemble present Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha at Grimeborn

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Grace Nyandoro (Treemonisha)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

But, Joplin’s opera, for all its dramatic defects, is an important work, for musical and non-musical reasons, and it was good to see Spectra Ensemble bringing the work to the Grimeborn festival at the Arcola Theatre.

Initially labelled a ‘folk opera’, Treemonisha was subsequently described by its composer as ‘not ragtime … the score complete is grand opera’. In fact, the score mingles a quasi-Wagnerian palette with folk tunes, ballads, barbershop, gospel and even the music of the circus. Contemporary critics missed the point when they denigrated it as a poor imitation of European opera, for its hybridity might be seen as an attempt by ‘The King of Ragtime’ to forge a new, distinctly ‘American’ musical language, while its use of American themes, anticipates works such as Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma, and Carousel.

Written in 1911, set in Arkansas in the 1880s, and reflecting Joplin’s own experience as a young African American during the Reconstruction period, Treemonisha had to wait until more than fifty years after Joplin’s death for its premiere, at the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center on 28 th January 1972. It wasn’t the composer’s first opera: a single-act work comprising twelve ragtime tunes, A Guest of Honor, was completed in 1903 but Joplin’s publisher refused to publish it and there is no extant score. Joplin chose to publish Treemonisha himself and included a lengthy preface which provides details of the character and setting, and explains his ‘leitmotivic’ method.

Devon Harrison, Caroline Modiba, Deborah Aloba, Andrew Clarke, Aivale Cole and Grace Nyandoro.jpgDevon Harrison, Caroline Modiba, Deborah Aloba, Andrew Clarke, Aivale Cole and Grace Nyandoro. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The opera is very much of its time, presenting a plantation community of freed slaves who fall prey to a ‘conjuror’, Zodzetrick, and his side-kick, Luddud, who exploit the simple folk’s gullibility and sell them ‘bags of luck’ to ward off evil spirits. The community is ‘saved’ by Treemonisha. Found under a tree, and adopted by a good-hearted couple - Ned, who manages the plantation for its white absentee landlord, and his wife Monisha - she has received an education from a white lady in town in exchange for her laundry services. She now sets about educating her fellow folk, challenging their superstitious beliefs. Fearful that Treemonisha’s enlightening effect will be bad for business, the conjurors first threaten and then abduct Treemonisha. She is rescued by one of her pupils, Remus, and, having urged her community to spare the kidnappers a brutal punishment, Treemonisha is then elected their leader.

The main studio at the Arcola Theatre is a challenging space within which to conjure a plantation deep in a forest in Arkansas. The brick walls of the former paint factory don’t lend themselves to a depiction of rural life, but director Cecilia Stinton and set/costume designer Raphaé Memon succeed in creating a credible, somewhat homey - and homely - community, by means of a few wooden crates and a paper tree-sculpture. But, figuratively, the ‘earth’ needs, I feel, to be a stronger presence: Stinton doesn’t draw out the community’s conflicting feelings, their joy at their new freedom being countered by a confusing love for the very land that once held them prisoner. Perhaps Ali Hunter’s lighting might have done more to evoke the colour and textures of the land?

With the musicians perched on the mezzanine above the thrust stage, Stinton makes effective use of the space beneath, and of the steps leading out of the auditorium, to suggest different locale, though briefly projected ‘titles’ might have been useful. Moreover, Joplin, who wrote both the score and libretto, distinguishes the characters by using dialect for the ‘uneducated’ folk, but whether the Spectra cast observed this distinction I could not tell, for the diction was not always clear.

Samantha Houston and Grace Nyandoro.jpg Samantha Houston (Monisha) and Grace Nyandoro (Treemonisha). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

But, while some of the characters remained emblematic, others were given a dignity which raised them above stereotype. Grace Nyandoro’s soprano has a strength and a shine that conveyed Treemonisha’s integrity, vision and resilience, and her final acceptance of the leadership of the community was emotive and heart-warming. As Parson Alltalk, bass Rodney Earl Clarke delivered a powerful ‘sermon’, ‘Wrong is Never Right’, and doubled as a steadfast Ned, partnered by Samantha Houston as Monisha. The duet in which they tell Treemonisha of her origins was touching, though Houston did not, I felt, suggest the real melancholy that lingers in Joplin’s music. Zodzetrick was sung with power by Njabulo Madlada, his voice adding a touch of real menace that was largely missing from the production itself. Tenor Edwin Cotton struggled a little with the higher lying passages of Remus’s vocal lines, but acted spiritedly, while mezzo-soprano Caroline Modiba sang with fullness and smoothness as Lucy, Treemonisha’s friend.

There was a certain cautiousness about this first-night performance, though; the ensembles, in particular, were lacking in the sort of vigour that would have communicated the real spirit of the community, and the dances were somewhat conservative. ‘The Bag of Luck’ which introduces the main characters at the start of Act 1 should surely make a more vibrant impact. Perhaps it was just a case of opening night prudence: certainly, there was no hesitancy from the six musicians led by flautist/musical director Matthew Lynch, who played stylishly. Moreover, the light instrumentation (Joplin’s own orchestrated score is lost) created an intimacy complemented by the thrust stage.

Spectra Ensemble gave a good account of Joplin’s opera, but one which didn’t really explore or seek to reveal the African-American socio-political issues that Treemonisha addresses, as issues of race intersect with those of gender, class and sexuality. The opera celebrates education over ignorance and enlightenment over superstition, espousing American-Christian values, and many commentators have observed the broad associations between Treemonisha and the ‘uplift ideology’ of contemporaries such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Joplin was an active member of at least one social-improvement organization, the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association, a charitable group founded in New York in 1909. And, after her husband’s death, Lottie Joplin eulogised that he ‘wanted to free his people from poverty, ignorance, and superstition, just like the heroine of his ragtime opera, Treemonisha’.

Stinton’s appealing but somewhat cosily sentimental production overlooked the undercurrents which give the opera - especially its closing chorus and dance, ‘A Real Slow Drag’ - its sad wistfulness. After all, as Rick Benjamin - conductor of New World Records’ centenary-celebrating recording in 2011, and a leading authority and interpreter of ragtime music - has observed, Treemonisha ‘is truly a rare artifact of a vanished culture: an opera about African-Americans of the Reconstruction era - created by a black man who actually lived through it’.

Claire Seymour

Scott Joplin: Treemonisha

Spectra Ensemble
Andy - Andrew Clarke, Ned/Parson Alltalk - Rodney Earl Clarke, Remus - Edwin Cotton, Monisha -Samantha Houston, Zodzetrick - Njabulo Madlala, Luddud - Denver Martin Smith, Lucy - Caroline Modiba, Treemonisha - Grace Nyandoro, Chorus (Deborah Aloba, Aivale Cole, Devon Harrison); Director - Cecilia Stinton, Music Director - Matthew Lynch, Designer - Raphaé Memon, Lighting Designer - Ali Hunter, Choreographers - Caitlin Fretwell Walsh/Ester Rudhart, Sarah Daramy-Williams/Elodie Chousmer-Howelles (violin), Zara Hudson-Kozdoj (cello), Gwen Reed (double bass), Berginald Rash (clarinet).

Grimeborn at the Arcola Theatre, London; Tuesday 27th August 2019.

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