TORONTO — An object of wide interest after the Scott Joplin revival of the 1970s, Treemonisha (1911) has not found a firm place in the opera repertoire, despite (or perhaps because of) a tuneful, toe-tapping score and a plot with the simple contours of a children’s story. On June 10, the Luminato Festival and TO Live presented the premiere of a good-faith effort by a mostly Black and female creative team to broaden its musical palette, strengthen its narrative, and bring its overall message into alignment with contemporary needs and perceptions.
The setting remains a plantation in 1884 operated by formerly enslaved people, although these (now called the Freedmen) have undergone some gentrification, to judge by their middle-class clothing. Treemonisha, the girl at the center of the story, is no longer said to have been educated by a white woman, but she is still a peacemaker who brings the story to a positive conclusion.
Remarkably, the co-authors of the new text, Leah-Simone Bowen and Cheryl L. Davis, have emulated the patois of Joplin’s libretto, with its inverted sentences, rhyming couplets, and substitution of “de” for “the,” “dis” for “this,” and so on. Co-arrangers Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth have also preserved the opera’s musical numbers, adding African-tinged new material to what Joplin thought of as the second act.
The most radical change is the recasting of the Conjurors, a band of charlatans, as the forest-dwelling Maroons, who preserve elements of mystical African Hoodoo culture and are both feared and despised by the Freedmen. The program notes assure us that these groups have historical antecedents, but their main impact was to lend Montagues-and-Capulets tension to the evening and permit the introduction of that most venerable of operatic devices, a romance, between the title character and Zodzerick, now a charismatic leading man rather than a huckster.
There are other alterations. Remus, a blandly sympathetic “friend of Treemonisha” in the original, is transformed into a frustrated and jealous fiancé along the lines of Erik in The Flying Dutchman. Rather than scare the Conjurors at their encampment by dressing as the Devil, he arrives with a gun amid the Maroons and (after some awkward hand-to-hand combat) dispatches Zodzerick. The funeral procession, led by Nana Buluku, the female leader of the cult, was one of the highlights of the evening, thanks in part to the compelling work of the Canadian blues and rock vocalist Saidah Baba Talibah (whose stage name is SATE).
Soprano Neema Bickersteth, another Canadian, was a good actress who brought helpfully clear diction to the title role. Cedric Berry was handsome vocally and otherwise as Zodzerick (“Zodzetrick” in the original), and his fellow American bass-baritone Marvin Lowe made a strong impression as Pastor Alltalk. Tenor Ashley Faatoalia was robust as Remus. Choral numbers, including the call-and-response “Good Advice” gospel sequence — one of a few deadly Joplin earworms — sounded hearty. Yet it cannot be said that the June 14 performance was a night of bel canto. Having heard a few new operas lately, I note a general tendency by singers to value projection over phrasing.
The question inevitably arises as to how music originally conceived for one libretto can be adapted to another. The answer is imperfectly. Joplin’s upbeat overture was an odd backdrop for the mimed story of an enslaved woman shot while attempting to escape with her newborn child. Treemonisha’s adoptive mother Monisha (the steady Scottish-American mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker) was compelled by the new story line to tell the sad tale of the execution of her father to an easygoing waltz beat. Treemonisha’s outraged reaction to the news that she was a foundling — in the original libretto she expresses gratitude — seemed both prolonged and harsh.
Of course, plotting incongruities are not unknown in the opera house, and a few oddities were a small price to pay for the added dramatic energy. As for the musical amendments, they provided welcome relief from Joplin’s four-bar phrases. As a critic of the indignities now inflicted by directors on operas, I surprise even myself with this endorsement. But it should be borne in mind that many musicals and operettas (think of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide) have undergone extensive rewrites for what their creators considered good reasons.
Will Treemonisha thrive as newly outfitted? Cheering was formidable on the evening I saw the show. Some of the approval was undoubtedly in response to production elements, including Camellia Koo’s evocative set, with its flexible curtain of ropes; the exuberant dance numbers (Esie Mensah); and stage direction (Weyni Mengesha) that was both natural and lucid. Another plus was the conducting (from stage right rather than the pit of the Bluma Appel Theatre) of Kalena Bovell. The 10 musicians, all Black, made a zesty case for the Montgomery/Norpoth orchestration (Joplin’s is lost).
Most important, the optimistic outlook of the opera was preserved in its essence. If the Freedmen and the Maroons can get along with Treemonisha as a leader, progress is possible. The concluding “A Real Slow Drag” number, presented unaltered, made the case with characteristic directness: “Marching onward, marching onward, marching to that lovely tune.”