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Treemonisha review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘Scott Joplin’s rediscovered opera’

The cast of Treemonisha at Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Robert Workman
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Of Scott Joplin’s two operas, one is entirely lost and the other, Treemonisha, exists only in vocal score. Despite the composer having achieved considerable fame with his piano rags, no production was forthcoming during his lifetime. The first came belatedly in 1972.

It’s a piece that shows promise rather than consistency. The score is uneven, though the best sections, including some set numbers in ragtime style, are full of vitality. The finale – entitled A Real Slow Drag, which moves into the anthemic duet Marching Onward – is an absolute winner.

The plot devised by the composer is advanced for its day, set nearly 20 years after the freeing of America’s slaves among a community that has been forever held back. The most educated person locally is the young heroine Treemonisha, who defeats the superstitions of the local conjurors and is finally unanimously elected leader by the local people.

The score is arranged for six players efficiently led by flautist Matthew Lynch and Cecilia Stinton’s staging both individualises the characters and allows the plot’s moral framework to register clearly, despite the piece’s awkward dramatic structure and a general weakness of diction from an otherwise strong cast.

In the title role, Grace Nyandoro rises impressively to the high notes. Taking two roles, Rodney Earl Clarke is touching as Treemonisha’s adoptive father Ned while achieving exceptional eloquence as Parson Alltalk, whose sermon is one of the highlights. Edwin Cotton provides some of the evening’s most expressive singing as Remus; but fine voices are on display throughout the committed cast.

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Verdict
Cecilia Stinton’s staging demonstrates the merits of Scott Joplin’s rediscovered opera
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