The continued building of the reputation of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) and his rarely performed opera “Treemonisha” received a further boost with a spirited semi-staged concert presentation of the opera by the Collegiate Chorale Singers and Orchestra on Thursday, March 9, 2006, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Although a concert version can’t do complete justice to Joplin’s achievement, the singing and staging were excellent and gave those attending a fresh opportunity to see why this opera is so rich.
Beginning in 1884 and set on an Arkansas plantation, “Treemonisha” dramatizes the title character’s role as a teacher and leader of African-Americans and the effort to value education over superstition. It contains some of the ragtime beat for which Joplin became famous. It is really a folk opera, filled with humanity and expression of difficulties and accomplishments and told with zest and sensitivity. The composer was able to create a larger than life quality through the melodies and rhythms coursing through the work, and he provided opportunity for some dynamic solos.
The work demands more than the 13-piece orchestra that performed it, although the orchestra excelled. However, the huge chorus, conducted by the group’s music director Robert Bass, gave great strength to the presentation. The staging was done by director Roger Reese. Anita Johnson made an appealing impression singing the title role, with Marietta Simpson also superb as Monisha, who discovered a baby under a tree, named her Treemonisha and raised her. Arthur Woodley was powerful as the adoptive father Ned. Others in the cast included Robert Mack, Barron Coleman, Elena O’Connor, Terry Cook, DeAndre Simmons, and James Martin.
The singers and the orchestra of the Collegiate Chorale have done a valuable service by reminding us with this satisfying concert version how important an opera “Treemonisha” is. It should have a new full-scale opera treatment, and utilizing this cast would be a good start.