Saturday, April 3, 2010

Grace for Treemonisha

Théâtre du Châtelet, March 31, 2010

I couldn't resist the temptation and went to see the premiere of Treemonisha, even though I had a train for Stuttgart to catch very early next morning...

Since my previous post on Treemonisha something unpleasant must have happened at the Châtelet to explain the fact that the name of the director Mark Dornford-May was dropped out from the program. Blanca Li, who was originally supposed to be in charge of choreography, ends up directing the whole show, with a help of a french artist [Roland Roure] who basically drew a few sketches that were video-projected on the stage thus providing the background images for the show. 

 Stephen Salters, Willard White, Grace Bumbry, Adina Aaron, Stanley Jackson, Jacques-Greg Belobo

Conductor Kazem Abdullah
Director Blanca Li [ + Roland Roure ]

Treemonisha Adina Aaron
Monisha Grace Bumbry
Lucy Janinah Burnett
Remus Stanley Jackson
Ned Willard White
Simon Jacques-Greg Belobo 
Parson Alltalk Krister St. Hill 
Luddud Jean-Pierre Cadignan 
A Foreman Joël Ocangha

Let me put it straight from the beginning: this ragtime opera by Scott Joplin is musically and theatrically weak. It sits somewhere between an opera and a Broadway show, but not really at ease on either end. HOWEVER, the idea to stage it only one year after the historical result of the presidential elections in the US is wonderful, and although weak the score is not any less good than many of the Bellini's or Donizetti's operas.
Treemonisha is the adoptive daughter of Ned, an Arkansas plantation manager, and Monisha. She uses her education to try to tear her people away from ignorance and superstitions mongered by Simon Luddud and Zodzetrick. The action takes place in 1884, when Treemonisha is 18, thus born only one year after the end of the Civil War (1861-1865) that resulted in the abolition of slavery. 

The story of the young girl is quite similar to Joplin's: he was born in 1867/1868 and received classical musical education thank sto the white family for whom his mother worked, and who was impressed with his prodigious talents. Treemonisha was published in 1911.

Treemonisha wins against the  superstitions mongers, helped by Remus, and her people want her to lead them (Hey, a woman at the end of the 19th century! How liberal was that?!)
"Coronation" of Treemonisha

Blanca Li does very well what she's know for the most: the choreography.  The stage looks high-schoolish with all these flowery drawings by Roland Roure, and this spoiled the evening for me. Too many flowers and stars and drawn houses... 

For me the real treat were the singers: all excellent, with Adina Aaron truly brilliant. It's astonishing that she's not more "famous", i.e. more frequent name seen on big stages... Her voice is somewhat verdian in that it's plain, rich, at ease in all registers. That easiness makes it more enjoyable to listen to her sing and she's shining the joy and happiness to be there performing.  Too bad the score doesn't let her boast more of her potential but in any case, to me, she was the winner of the night. Brava! During  the curtain calls she decided not to come out the last but let Grace Bumbry  enjoy her moment. How generous and respectful is that!

Grace Bumbry

Grace was good by any standards. Not great, for sure, but for someone who's 73 she was nothing short of extraordinary. The crowd --who still remember her memorable performances at the Garnier Opera-- was very excited and enthusiastic. It was one of those special moments to see a legend back on stage. Respect!

Personally I was most happy to see Willard White. He too is well past his prime, but that magic beauty of his timbre remained intact... Grandissimo!

Kazem Abdullah is a good conductor although sometimes too forte for the singers. He did his job well, and I hope we'll see more of him in Paris in the years to come.

Kazem Abdullah in the middle
Nice surprise was the tenor Stanley Jackson who I've only heard about recently, after he sang Orphée in Stuttgart and received very complimentary critics about his performances. He is a fine singer and I hope to see him in some more demanding roles where he could show more of his undeniable talent.

All in all the show is not really memorable but the strong singers made it nevertheless enjoyable. I just saw on YT that the Châtelet's PR-staff posted a 3 minute video of excerpts from the premiere. Enjoy ;)


  1. Hi, O-C - this is a very late comment, but I just found your blog.

    Wish I'd known about it before I attended Treemonisa at LeChatelet on Easter Sunday. They must have worked some bugs out, or gotten more comfortable, because the performance I saw was outstanding. As a complete Treemonisha-groupie - would you believe I saw a performance here in Oregon in Bend (!) more than 30 years ago? - I thought the Paris version got a few things wrong in characterizations and costumes, but so what? To me, the key was that they got the spirit.

    And just to quarrel with you a bit, I think this opera is more Puccini-like in structure and emotionalism. And remember, Joplin never got to tinker with it, the way other composers got to tinker with and improve their works. I absolutely adore this music and believe that the more often it is performed, the better it will get.


  2. Thanks Jo for your note. I remember that I was unhappy with sets and most of what the director did in that show. However, choreography and music were very good + the singing was absolutely brilliant.

    To me the work tells the volumes about Joplin, and I was happy Chatelet decided to mount it. Don't you think Joplin was hugely avant-garde for his time. His main messages (education, women's rights, denounce manipulators... ) are perfectly valid today too.


  3. I of course agree that if it was more often performed it would have gotten better.

    You didn't say if you liked Willard, Grace and Adina!? ;)