Read any good CD’s lately? The two discs of this complete recording of Treemonisha, Scott Joplin’s 1911 opera, come inserted between the covers of a 112 page small-print book that is almost as fascinating as the sounds on the discs. What a package!

Rick Benjamin, the esteemed musicologist and leader of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, spent five years creating what are billed here as “Historically Authentic Orchestrations” based on Joplin’s own piano/vocal score – the only thing left to us because the original orchestrations were trashed as worthless by the lawyer for the composer’s heirs in 1962.

Benjamin had a fascination for the piece for many years and had done a great deal of research into the history of its composition and halting progress toward actual performance even before he decided to do his own recreation of appropriate orchestrations. He uses that research to tell the story of Joplin’s life and his creation of his opera, a piece obviously intended to signal the emergence of his race from subjugation and ignorance into a new and intellectually fulfilling future.

As Benjamin says in the very first paragraph of the forty page biographical sketch and story of the creation of Treemonisha that opens this book, “It is the only opera in existence about the Reconstruction Era African-American experience written by a black man who actually lived through it.”

Joplin devised its story, wrote its book (or “libretto” as they say in opera) and its lyrics, composed its music, self-published its vocal/piano score, and directed its premiere at the Washington Park Theatre in Bayone, New Jersey in 1913.

Joplin, of course, had already become a success as the composer of piano rags. The success of The Maple Leaf Rag and others propelled the Sedalia, Missouri composer first to St. Louis and eventually to New York as his publisher touted him as “The King of Ragtime Writers.” That success, however, didn’t lead to the kind of fame that songsters later in the century would enjoy.

Even relocating to New York didn’t mean living on easy street – he wrote most of Treemonisha in what Benjamin describes as “a small and dismal boarding house … on the southern fringe of Manhattan’s Tenderloin’ district.” He lived with a madam in her bordello and, in fact, ended his life a victim of syphilis in New York’s state insane asylum on Ward’s Island.

Benjamin set himself the goal of finding the sound of the kind of orchestra that would have been available to Joplin in 1911 – what Benjamin refers to as an “eleven and piano” theater orchestra. Using contracts and other records of the time, as well as the annotations of the composer, he determined that the audiences who attended the very few performances of the opera would not have heard oboes or bassoons, french horns or tubas, harps or banjos – certainly not banjos as that sound would have hinted at minstrelsy, a demeaning, then-obsolete throwback to what Benjamin terms “a cringe-inducing ‘happy darky’ stereotype.” What is more, Benjamin takes Joplin at his word in the surviving vocal/piano score. He always used the singular when indicating a cue for string parts (“violin” not “violins” and “cello” not “cellos”).

If you are expecting classical “Grand Opera” you will be surprised. This isn’t Verdi or Puccini or Wagner. But if you expect light and frivolous ragtime jazziness, you will be equally surprised. This is a serious, through-composed, formally structured piece with leitmotifs, dramatic substance and a wide variety of melodic material.

It isn’t a ragtime opera anymore than George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a jazz opera. Benjamin quotes Joplin saying “I want it thoroughly understood that my opera Treemonisha is not ragtime. In most of the strains I have used syncopation (rhythm) peculiar to my race, but the music is not ragtime and the score complete is grand opera.”

Joplin’s devotion to the idea of creating a “grand opera” leads him to follow the practice of setting what should be simple dialogue into the pretentious format of recitative. Composing music to make recitative seem to match the charms of arias, tuneful duets, chorus numbers and dances requires a combination of talent, skill and practice that eludes even some of the best composers. Stilted lines like “I am greatly surprised to know that you are not my mother” would be better said quickly than, as in the opera, stretched out and underlined by a chorus repeating “We are all surprised, surprised.”

For modern ears, some of the dialect compounds the problem (“Does yer feel lak you’ve been redeemed” asks a preaching parson in a musically impressive number,) but the story Joplin devised and the music he composed will still impress.

The opera tells the story of a young girl raised by a Negro couple on what remains of a plantation near the Red River in Arkansas. She is the first of her race in the area to learn to read and she leads the struggle against superstition and the old ways of “conjuring.” Having been found under a tree by a woman named Monisha, and growing up to love sitting beneath that tree while reading her books, the girl comes to be known as “Treemonisha.”

It is a simple story as are many folk tales that serve as the basis for operas — Hansel and Gretel isn’t very complex either. In this recording, the orchestra all play period-authentic instruments and the casting offers strong voices that seem appropriate for the distinctly written but simplistically stereotyped characters.

To those who first came into contact with Treemonisha as a result of the Houston Grand Opera’s big and bold revival of 1975, which sparked the opera’s resurrection from obscurity, the sound of Benjamin’s return to the performance ambiance that Joplin would have had in 1913 will come as something of a pleasant surprise. The Houston revival had a big sound in orchestrations by Gunther Schuller. Benjamin, having made a thoroughly convincing case for a 12 piece band, gives us a lighter, clearer and cleaner experience of the orchestral sound behind a dozen trained operatic voices plus chorus.

Singing the title role is soprano Anita Johnson with bass-baritone Frank Ward, Jr and mezzo-soprano AnnMarie Sandy as her parents. Their delivery follows operatic traditions which mask the characterization that could be found in the visualization for a live performance. This is particularly noticeable as Sandy works her way through a lengthy recitative sequence (“Treemonisha’s Brining Up”) before it is enlivened by a tricky ending. She does get a chance to soar, however, on “The Sacred Tree.”

More idiosyncratic, and therefore a bit more interesting, are the performances in the more colorful supporting roles, although there are times when the stilted lyrics get in their way. There is just so much you can do with a line like “I am glad I came in time to save you from the awful sting of the wasp. And while on my way to your rescue, Many hills and valleys I crossed.”

Since the 1975 Houston revival, we’ve known that there was much more to Joplin’s legacy than the rags. Now we have an even clearer knowledge of that legacy thanks to the work of Rick Benjamin.

New World Records Catalog 80720-2
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and multiple photos in a 122 page book
Running time: 1:39 over 29 tracks
List price $31.98

Treemonisha - Studio Cast Recording

June 19, 2012