Zippy Ragtime, Nasty Sorcerers Enliven ‘Treemonisha’ in Paris

Singers from left, Willard White, Grace Bumbry and Adina Aaron in "Treemonisha" at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. The Scott Joplin opera is in repertory from March 31 through April 9, 2010. Source: Theatre du Chatelet via Bloomberg

Overcoming deep-seated prejudices and tired of “faith-based” politics, the people elect an enlightened African-American as its leader. I’m referring to “Treemonisha,” Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera.

Some 100 years after it was composed, the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris has mounted the work for the first time in France, slyly hinting at recent political events in the U.S.

The all-black cast, headed by veterans Grace Bumbry and Willard White, has been imported from the U.S. and Africa.

Even in the U.S. it took more than half a century before “Treemonisha” was staged. During his lifetime, Joplin (1868-1917) was known for his zippy ragtime music, chiefly the 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag.” (Another piece, “The Entertainer,” was the leitmotif of the 1973 movie “The Sting.”)

“The King of Ragtime,” as Joplin was called, didn’t invent the musical genre that prefigured jazz. Yet he arrived in St. Louis just as the ragtime craze was about to erupt.

Although successful as a pianist and composer of short pieces, Joplin had higher ambitions. He was obsessed with the idea of a ragtime opera. His first effort, “A Guest of Honor” (1903), was never performed; the manuscript went astray on its way to the copyright office.

“Treemonisha,” his second attempt, didn’t fare much better. Unable to find a producer, Joplin had to pay for the only performance himself, a 1915 run-through with piano in a shabby Harlem theater.

Red-Light Dives

It was a flop, and the desperate composer ended in the madhouse. That’s the official version. Others suspect that his insanity was caused by syphilis contracted in the red-light districts where he often played.

The “sleeping beauty of American music” was forgotten until 1970 when the piano score was rediscovered. It was orchestrated and first performed in Atlanta in 1972. The success led to productions all over the country, a recording by Deutsche Grammophon and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Although several orchestrations of the score are now available, some jazzier than others, the Chatelet has stuck to the more traditional version by Gunther Schuller that also was used for the recording. In fact, only a small part of “Treemonisha” is in ragtime style; most of it was inspired by romantic operas and 19th-century light music.

Mercifully, director Blanca Li and set designer Roland Roure have resisted the temptation to update the disarmingly naive plot and make it “politically relevant.”

Moral Tale

They tell the story as it is, a fairy tale with a message: Ned and Monisha, both freed slaves, have adopted a baby they found under a tree, naming her Treemonisha. Taught by a white benefactress, the bright girl gets a solid education, which brings her into conflict with conjurers who fear for their grip on the community.

They kidnap Treemonisha and are about to dump her into a wasps’ nest when help arrives. All ends well. The black community follows Treemonisha’s example and Joplin’s moral: Education, not irrational beliefs, is the key to progress.

Li started as a dancer and choreographer. No wonder the dancing interludes, though more endearing than precise, are the highlights of the show. Roure’s folksy sets and costumes are exactly what this simple, often trivial music needs.

The weak spot is the singing. Bumbry as Treemonisha’s foster mother was wildly feted on opening night, yet the bravos and bravas were probably more a homage to her long, distinguished career than to her present vocal state. White, as her husband, is in much better shape.

Adina Aaron has the looks for the title role yet her soprano is on the hard side. Stanley Jackson as Remus, her lover and savior, struggles with the high tessitura.

Kazem Abdullah conducts the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, a band of some 30 musicians founded in 1978.

Rating: **.

“Treemonisha” is in repertory at the Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, through April 9. For details, see or call +33-1-4028-2828.

What the Stars Mean:
****         Outstanding
***          Good
**           Average
*            Poor
No stars     Worthless

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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