Treemonisha – Arcola, London

Music and Libretto: Scott Joplin

Director: Cecilia Stinton

Musical Director: Matthew Lynch

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

A heady mix of musical styles and tempos swirl around this 1911 opera – breaking expectations and provoking a dive into deeper meaning beyond the seemingly simple plot.

Scott Joplin’s switching from spiritual sounding songs, to folky dances to something resembling ragtime – all the while retaining a big, familiar operatic structure – makes for excitement. The history lesson he gives on life as a group  of freed slaves near Texarkana in 1884, charting the superstition, struggle with education and fraud is also enlightening. Without much of a story to grab us in, these underlying currents do most of the work.

The opera follows Treemonisha, a young girl on the plantation, and one of the only ones there who has received an education. After admonishing a travelling conjurer trying to scam her mother out of money for a “bag of luck” she is then captured by him after sneaking off from church. Her friend Remus saves her from being thrown into a wasp’s nest by the conjurer gang, bringing her home to find another group of men has captured the kidnappers and are set to beat them soundly. Showing mercy, Treemonisha convinces the group to just lecture them instead of using violence, opening the group’s eyes to the power of words and education and pushing the young girl into a leadership position.

The messages are clear to see, and in fact seem like they’re laid on a little thick. Reminding ourselves who the original audience was likely meant to be (though it was written in 1911 it was never fully produced until the 1970s) goes a long way towards understanding the didactic nature of the work. As the group lecture the criminal conjurers, so it feels like we are also being lectured. Education and non-violence is the way forward – fair enough. It’s a strong message now, and would have been stronger at the time.

So it feels strange in this production there’s not more urgency, or energy put into it. Constantly threatening to raise the temperature, or bite a little – we instead receive a tepid gumming. Songs with a clear ragtime snap and rhythm (if not speed) feel recited and flat, the dances are choreographed and procedural without the joy suggested by the music and lyrics, and the superstition and fear created by the conjurers and preachers feels arch and play acted. Some beautiful vocal performances come in from cast members like Edwin Cotton as Remus and Samantha Houston as Monisha, and the six part band led by musical director Matthew Lynch is tight and a genuine pleasure to listen to.

That flatness in tone is hard to shake and gets in the way of enjoying the musical variety Joplin created. There’s great singing, a nice experience of one of the first American operas, but for all the sparks that pop up sporadically in the performance, nothing seems to properly catch.

Runs until 31 August 2019 | Image: Contributed

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