Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha – Pegasus Opera Company at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Scott Joplin
Treemonisha [performed in a musical arrangement by Abram Wilson]

Treemonisha – Donna Bateman
Monisha – Maureen Brathwaite
Lucy – Hyacinth Nicholls
Remus – Bernard Abervandana
Andy – Brian I. Green
Cephus – Toby F. Scholz
Zodzetrick – Denver Martin Smith
Ned – Herbert Perry
Luddud – Andrew McIntosh
Simon – Chike Akwarandu
Parson Alltalk – Rodney Clarke

Community Chorus

Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra
Peter Selwyn

Iqbal Khan – Director
Ciaran Bagnall – Designer / Lighting Designer
Gerrard Martin – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 9 June, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Ever since Joshua Rifkin recorded Scott Joplin’s rags in the early-1970s there has been a growing interest in his work, and the various productions of his opera “Treemonisha”, as well as a commercial recording, have tried to show us the range of his talent and musical abilities. We must be grateful to Pegasus Opera for giving us a chance to see, as well as hear, this work, so we can judge for ourselves its qualities.

I am sorry to have to report that musically the work is not quite a disaster but it comes quite close to one. No matter how hard one tries it would be impossible to make any claims for greatness for this work, and, on the strength of this performance, it left me, and several members of the audience, wondering what the fuss was about.

The plot isn’t as bad as some – but the libretto leaves one gasping in astonishment at its banality. The text of Delius’s “Koanga” was re-written for today’s audience, and thus much improved, so it could have been done here, and this, I am sure, would have helped in one’s appreciation of the work.

The performance was good, the simple staging was very effective and gave sufficient colour to the action, but it was lacking pizzazz and real pace which allowed the plot to plod along, what didn’t help matters was some very embarrassing dumb-show which was of an Am-Dram standard. At the start the audience was applauding almost every number (Treemonisha is a numbers opera) but as the first two acts progressed the applause lessened and became lacklustre for there was, quite simply, nothing to make one want to return to the previous excitement shown. That said, the choral singing was magnificent and was a real highlight; indeed, some of the choruses contained the best music.

Of the soloists the men were the more impressive. Tenors Bernard Abervandana and Brian I. Green, and bass Herbert Perry – an excellent turn as Treemonisha’s father – all displayed a firm and rich vocal tone, which, almost totally without vibrato, showed the musical line. The women sang in the modern style with much vibrato which, to the ears of someone trained by a singer who worked in the pre-war era, distorts the vocal line and sometimes makes it impossible to tell which note is being sung.

The Tomorrow’s Warriors Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Peter Selwyn played an arrangement of the score by Abram Wilson which, curiously, at times had the true sound of Weill and Eisler; indeed the band was almost a typical Eisler band. There were a few problems of balance, but in general, Selwyn knew how to ensure that the voices were heard to best effect.

It’s good to have experienced “Treemonisha” in the flesh, but it’s not a work which really commands our attention, and a performance such as this, with all the will in the world, cannot hide the serious shortcomings of the work.

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