By ALAN SMASON
Scott Joplin wrote only two operas in his brief, but productive musical career. His first, A Guest of Honor is presumed lost to the trashbin of history, the victim of Joplin’s inability to pay his lodging bill. Joplin, who called himself “The King of Ragtime,” fared only slighty better with a partial mounting of his second opera, Treemonisha, which proved to be less than successful less than two years before he died.
Joplin’s popularity soared in the 1970s following his rediscovery by classical performers like Joshua Rifkin and William Bolcom. That was followed by the release of the popular film “The Sting,” which incorporated many of Joplin’s most famous pieces culled from his collection titled “The Red Back Book” such as “Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Entertainer” and “The Easy Winners.”
Deutche Grammophon was the first record company to record and release Treemonisha in its entirety in 1992 following this resurgence in interest of the work. It has been performed around the world for nearly three decades now and at least two other full recordings of the work now exist.
Locally, Treemonisha has been previously staged in its entirety in New Orleans only once before. That was a performance at the Scottish Rite Temple on Carondelet Street, a production of Xavier University.
With that historic backdrop, OperaCréole, a local operatic company dedicated to performing historic works of interest to the African-American and early New Orleans cultures and the Cripple Creek Theatre Company staged two performances of Treemonisha at the Music Box, an unusual outdoor venue in the Upper Ninth Ward Bywater neighborhood this past Saturday and Sunday evenings, October 21 and 22.
Co-directed by Emilie Whelan and Givonna Joseph, the inventive and immersive staging at the site helped to expand the glorious singing by the principal singers and the talented chorus.
In the title role of Treemonisha was OperaCréole’s resident soprano Kenya Jackson, a woman possessed with an extraordinary voice. Jackson’s deliberate and insightful acting were evident as she shaped her character and the turmoil she endures during her capture by two conjurers – Zodzetrick and Luddud – and her eventual rescue from their hands by love interest Remus (Prentiss Mouton). Mouton, the company’s resident tenor, also provided excellent interpretation of the role, where he is seen as first her promoter and eventually her hero and supporter.
Principal soprano Ebonee Davis as Monisha, Treemonisha’s mother, and Terrance Brown as Ned, her father, were both outstanding. Choreographer, singer and dancer Polanco Jones turned in another great performance as Luddud as did Big Easy Award-winning actor Cameron Mitchell-Ware as Zodzetrick, the two conjurers who capture Treemonisha.
Among the chorus and secondary players was co-director Joseph, who donned a costume as a local resident, dancing and singing in support of the principal players.
Joseph’s daughter, Aria Mason, the co-founder of the company and an opera performer in her own right, took time off-stage for this staging to act as stage manager, while Cripple Creek’s Andrew Vaught served as the production manager behind the scenes. The conductor, Francis Scully, added his own masterful take to the Joplin score with a talented ensemble of players, including Wilfred Delphin, the founding pianist of OperaCréole, who all played within the seating section, adding to the enjoyment of the performance.
While the performers were largely aided with the help of a sound system, occasionally it would cut out. This diminished some of the principals’ arias at times. Not noted as an opera composer or librettist, Joplin’s score and libretto, were at times quite brilliant and exhilarating, but also at times proved to be listless and disappointing.
One of the biggest exceptions to this sometimes lackluster score is the “lecture” by Remus and an accompanying octet that was absolutely exquisite as all the voices blended together in denouncing the two captured conjurers who had abducted Treemonisha.
Given the overall success of this work and the lengths to which the Cripple Creek and OperaCréole companies went for just two nights worth of performances, there is a hope they can work together on a more lengthy future project that will allow more than the mere 300 or so who gathered to see this historic work performed.