Of the many potentially awkward contradictions that course throughout Scott Joplin's rarely produced opera Treemonisha -- opera vs. ragtime; Joplin's sophisticated musical gifts vs. his primitive storytelling; the language of 1866 vs. 21st-century ears -- Opera Theatre of St. Louis' generous production glides through them all by articulating and celebrating the work's core artistic quality, aspiration. The production's engaging spirit of progress, of movement, of a soaring African-American culture triumphs over its disparate elements, and by the rousing curtain call, a stirring union fills the Loretto-Hilton Center. The story of Treemonisha, a St. Louis composer's manifest desire to create a new, great transcending work, and an opera company that has burgeoned for 25 years join in their mutual passion for ignoring orthodoxy and "marching onward, marching onward." As you eagerly clap along, what at first appeared to be a curious choice to open Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 25th-anniversary season now makes consummate historic, emotional and artistic sense. Director Rhoda Levine, conductor Jeffrey Huard and the entire company make the brave choice to present Treemonisha in the fullness and limits of Joplin's intentions and talents and to not alter, edit (save the removal of intermissions and one interlude) or provide smoothing context that might make the work "easier" for the audience. Published in 1911, Treemonisha was Joplin's second opera. (Allegedly a ragtime work, the first is lost.) In it, Joplin challenges his community to disavow superstition and to embrace education as the path to transformation and happiness. Though the language is coarse to our ears and the storytelling choppy, the metaphor is timeless and serves as substantial foundation for the piece. Perhaps more important, its selection offers insight into Joplin's understanding of the human penchant for ignorance -- a state that demands an artist's courage and vision to be destroyed.
Joplin's labors to interpolate African-American rhythms and sounds into a European musical form serves as the real drama of Treemonisha. It is a drama that Joplin leaves mostly unresolved, but there are moments that make you think that he was onto something, if he'd just had a few more years. In the case of Treemonisha, the three ragtime dances are when Joplin is his most stirring and confident, pointing toward the center where Joplin lived as an artist. Still, there are some strong moments in his exploration. "I Want to See My Child" and "We Will Rest Awhile" resonate with weariness and pain. "Wrong is Never Right" adroitly weaves morality, passion and plea. "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn" defines jubilation. All of Treemonisha is worthy, but little carries the transcendent majesty of some of Joplin's ragtime compositions. Treemonisha is ultimately a genius testing his borders, and it is his endeavor, not the result, that is most illuminating.
Steadfastly determined to honor the composer, director Levine guides the production with a simplicity and clarity that shelters the work from pretension or preciousness. Because much of the work is simply narrative -- the characters sing what they will do, go do it and then tell what they've done -- she allows the chorus to serve as listeners and wraps the production in an almost fablelike quality. The appearance of a photo of the composer at the beginning and end, along with Levine's ability to embrace the work's popular humor, enhances this storytelling sensibility. Choreographer Dianne McIntyre presents a series of historically accurate dances that at times are more jarring to the contemporary eye and mind than anything in the "dem, dose" language. Here, the work's bold desire to be all things African, American and European is at its most fiery, conflicted and exciting. Whenever possible, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind is most adroit at creating a sense of shifting mood that smooths over Joplin's uneasy dramaturgy. Set designer Peter B. Harrison imbues the production with strength, although there is a strange lack of visual clarity in the forest scenes.
The fine young cast assembled by OTSL meets the creative team's desire to honor Joplin as written but pays a price. There are stretches of exposition where it is extremely difficult to understand the language, which would be fine, if there weren't stretches when it's all perfectly clear. The audience's ear must constantly adjust, which tends to distract from the singers' often-exemplary work. In the title role, Christina Clark makes her Opera Theatre debut in a performance of conviction and charm. A soprano of confident timbre that shifted levels of authority throughout the performance, Clark was most susceptible to the hairpin demands of Joplin. In the grand tradition of OTSL, she is a young artist to watch. As her parents, Monisha and Ned, Geraldine McMillian (also making her OTSL debut) and Kevin Short were the most confident and alluring. McMillian's strong soprano gracefully mastered the complexities of Joplin's more emotional weavings. Short's bass-baritone rose to unalterable power in "When the Villains Ramble Far and Near." As Remus, Nathan Granner also makes a strong OTSL debut. Lawrence Brownlee is frisky and jubilant as Andy, and Derrick L. Parker adds fine humor and presence as the Parson. In the extremely difficult roles of the conjurers, Neil Nelson and Mark Edward Kent (both making debuts) manage a torrent of difficult language to accurately translate Joplin's disdain of superstition.
Treemonisha doesn't pretend to be a work of neglected genius, or to be a production that offers startling new insight. In form and content, this Treemonisha fuses local spirit, abundant young talent and confident artistry to bookmark Opera Theatre's bequests of risk, invention and passion to our community. Moreover, by choosing to open the 25th-anniversary year with Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, Opera Theatre offers us the powerful idea that in art and life, our aspirations may be more lasting than our achievements.