Joplin opera performed with spirit

April 19, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

In "Treemonisha" (1911) Scott Joplin tried to write a "real" opera. That is to say that Joplin, the African-American whose ragtime music had conquered the world, attempted to write an opera in the European sense. And his own libretto -- the story of a young girl who teaches her people that education can liberate them from superstition and misery -- expressed what he considered the ideals of his race. The European aspects of "Treemonisha" are the weakest things about it. Some of the extended solos are much too long, the libretto about former slaves in 1880s' Arkansas is pretty bad, and some of the music sounds like watered-down Dvorak.

But fortunately, as a performance of "Treemonisha" by the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore at Baltimore City Community College Friday and Saturday indicated, Joplin could not escape his roots. Those roots were African-American -- the world of folk tunes and spirituals, of ragtime and syncopation, of sad melody and revival-meeting outbursts, even of barber-shop quartets and ballads. If it is even less of an opera in the traditional sense than Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," "Treemonisha" is an often wonderful piece. Joplin's theatrical experience may have been limited -- he never got "Treemonisha" staged during his lifetime (1868-1917) and an earlier, unprod -uced opera, "A Guest of Honor," has been lost -- but no one ever closed a curtain better. Each finale -- the revival-like "Good Advice" that closes Act I, the spiritual-like ending of Act II, "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn" and the exultant, swinging "A Real Slow Drag" that ends the piece -- is the work of a genius.

The Municipal Opera is a semi-professional company with limited resources, and not all of the voices in this production of "Treemonisha" were memorable, but the performances were energetic and committed and deserved the enthusiastic response they received. Outstanding in Friday's cast were Jocelyn Taylor, whose lyrical simplicity and beauty made her an almost ideal Treemonisha; Rodney Wing, whose rock-steady, beautiful bass-baritone voice shone as Parson Alltalk and Simon, and James Nathan Jones, who made a hilarious conjurer as Zodzetrick.

Ed Terry did a skillful job of directing his singer-actors, Jorge Gonzalez constructed handsome sets on what must have been a shoestring budget and conductor Charlene Moore-Cooper and her tiny orchestra (piano and four brass instruments) managed to convey some of the richness of the composer's score.

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