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Revelatory Scott Joplin Opera

Jed Distler

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Rick Benjamin’s reconstruction of Scott Joplin’s lone surviving opera Treemonisha from the existing vocal/piano score is nothing less than a revelation of historical research and musicology. In contrast to Gunther Schuller’s 1975 grand opera version with full orchestra, Benjamin aims to replicate the smaller theater pit-band aesthetic with which Joplin was familiar, aided by surviving Joplin orchestrations, plus instrumentation guide books relevant to the era and milieu.

The music takes on a completely different complexion with a 12-piece ensemble that features one instrument to a part, including cornets instead of trumpets, and percussion instruments of the period. Moreover, the swifter, lighter instrumental textures liberate Joplin’s gorgeous vocal lines, imparting a conversational rather than histrionic quality that befits both the musical style and the still-relevant moral of Joplin’s self-penned libretto of how education, rather than superstition, provides a pathway out of poverty.

Among the inspired cast’s stand-out performances are Anita Johnson’s fervent yet playful traversal of the title role, plus the fluent repartée between Edward Pleasant and AnnMarie Sandy (Zodzetrick and Monisha). Frank Ward’s excellent diction and attractive sonority make for a fine Ned (Treemonisha’s father), although the young Willard White’s more lustrous interpretation on DG shouldn’t be missed. It’s also wonderful to hear the choral finale, “A Real Slow Drag”, without Schuller’s “grand opera” trappings. Benjamin provides an extensive and detailed essay discussing the trials and tribulations Joplin experienced in his attempts to get his opera produced, illustrated by period photographs, newspaper clippings, and other relevant historic artifacts.

Beyond question, New World’s Treemonisha is the most significant recording of Scott Joplin’s music to be released since Dick Hyman’s 1975 RCA survey of the complete piano music, which still awaits its first integral CD reissue.

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