Joplin - Treemonisha

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Tuesday April 6 2010.

Conductor: Kazem Abdullah. Production & choreography: Blanca Li. Sets & costumes: Roland Roure. Lighting: Jacques Rouveyrollis. Treemonisha: Adina Aaron. Monisha: Grace Bumbry. Lucy: Janinah Burnett. Remus: Stanley Jackson. Andy: Mlamli Lalapantsi. Cephus: Loïc Felix. Zodzetrick: Stephen Salters. Ned: Willard White. Simon: Jacques-Greg Belobo. Parson Alltalk: Krister St. Hill. Luddud: Jean-Pierre Cadignan. A foreman: Joël Ocangha. Ensemble orchestral de Paris.

I was as glad to see Treemonisha on the Châtelet’s schedule this year as I am to see Les Mamelles de Tirésias on the Opéra Comique’s for 2010-2011. Not that they have much in common, but they’re both rare treats. And I was glad to get the impression that, musically speaking, the show must have improved since the opening night, as what I heard wasn’t as weak as some of the professional reviews implied.

In fact, the cast was strong throughout: Adina Aaron as Treemonisha didn’t have, last Tuesday, the tuning problems some mentioned, though her diction is hazy. Nor did Grace Bumbry, though physically frail (always leaning on someone’s arm or sitting on a stool) sound either especially elderly or especially wobbly: her singing was remarkably fluent and strong. Stanley Jackson had a very interesting timbre and engaging personality as Remus, and Krister St. Hill made a wonderfully charismatic, grinning Parson Alltalk in a very tall stovepipe hat. Willard White’s big Act 3 aria was loudly applauded, rightly so. And the orchestra must have got used to the rhythms by this stage of the run.

The sets were colourful and naïve, cut-out, scrapbook images hovering somewhere between Rousseau and Chagall and children’s books, with slowly-moving watercolour video backdrops. The costumes were brightly coloured too, or sometimes plain linen, or African witch-doctor outfits for the baddies.

The trouble with the show was that (a) it somehow didn’t really get going till near the end: there was something tame and cautious about it, and the dances, when they came, seemed too deliberately pasted on. And (b), Blanca Li treated the whole thing as a rather sugary fairy tale, rather than letting the darker side bite. The sorcerers weren’t frightening at all, nor was Treemonisha’s ordeal. The crowning of Treemonisha at the end, with the giant, starry curtain as her veil, was, as my neighbour put it, “tarte.” I’m not quite sure how to translate that. Corny? Kitschy? I’m not saying the political side of the fragile plot could stand a great deal of emphasis, but it could have stood a bit more evil and a bit less “bon sentiment.”

Still, it was a handsome show, by now musically sound, the dances – though a touch too hip-hop – were energetic and well done, and the encores, at last, took off, with the singers joining in the dancing while the conductor conducted, William-Christie-style, from the stage.

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