Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has started its season with a stunning show. Treemonisha — an expanded world premiere production (and one of two current re-imaginings) — sparkles and captivates at every turn. The collaboration of contemporary composer Damien Sneed and librettist Karen Chilton with the historic genius of Scott Joplin effectively connects Joplin’s three-act reconstruction-era story with the composer’s life and modern audiences in a compelling and engaging opera.
Joplin’s original opera — recreated based only on the remaining piano score — tells the story of a small Black community in the South during the years just after the Civil War. Treemonisha came to the community as a baby and was taken in by an older couple. They raised her as their own and ensured she was educated, making her the only one in the community who can read and write. Treemonisha is also wise beyond her years, and she cautions the community against giving in to superstition and charlatans, which leads to her being kidnapped by some conjurers. After her friend Remus and other men rescue her and catch the kidnappers, she urges the community to forgive the men and instead teach and welcome them.
Sneed and Chilton adroitly frame the story of Treemonisha with the tale of Joplin and his muse and bride Freddie Alexander Joplin. The show opens with the two jumping the broom, but Freddie dies just 10 weeks later. Joplin, who has recently finished his opera, is distraught and gets pulled into Treemonisha and becomes Remus, while Freddie becomes Treemonisha.
Justin Austin, as Joplin and Remus, and Brandie Inez Sutton, as Freddie and Treemonisha, are enthralling and a pure delight to listen to — together and individually. Austin’s rich, round baritone fills the theater with warmth and resonance, rather than volume or force. He’s tender and affectionate, whether effectively deferring to Sutton’s Treemonisha or collapsing in loneliness and despair at the loss of Freddie. Sutton is a pure and true soprano with the ability to add emotional depth and context in each breath. Her arias are well controlled and resplendent with texture. Smooth and cool like silk at one moment, soft and seductive velvet the next and comforting as a feather bed in another. As importantly, Austin and Sutton create effective emotional chemistry. Amani Cole-Felder, Phillip Bullock, KS. Tichina Vaughn, Norman Garrett, Jeremiah Tyson and Yazid Gray stand out among the strong supporting ensemble, adding humor and compassion to the story.
Presented in five short acts, with one intermission, the show runs two and a half hours that move by at a crisp pace. Joplin’s compositions reflect his hopes for Black Americans in the early 20th century, and he tells the story using imagery and elements of magical realism that draw from the African diasporas in the United States. Stage director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj guides the audience through the story with thoughtful staging and smart transitions enhanced by Maleek Washington’s choreography, which is an engaging interpretation of traditional dance seamlessly integrated with modern.
Though known primarily as the foremost composer of ragtime music, Joplin studied the classics and burned with a desire to be seen as more than just a ragtime pianist. In 1904, while still on the rise, Joplin married the woman who would prove to be his lifelong muse though she died just 10 weeks after their wedding. Opera Theatre’ stunning production honors the composer’s work and life along with the rich traditions and contributions of Black communities and individuals throughout our history, ensuring this premiere is a must see for multiple reasons.Treemonisha is written by Scott Joplin with new performing version conceived and created by Damien Sneed and Karen Chilton. Directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj. Presented by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves; 314-961-0644; opera-stl.org) through June 24. Showtimes vary, and tickets are $15 to $134.