But sometimes the new lens does distract from the original’s essence. The St. Louis version turned the intriguing (if faint) subtext Berlin identified into a cudgel with which to beat the audience over the head. Sneed and Chilton framed “Treemonisha” — usually a succinct 90 minutes or less — with two overlong and overstated acts, the first depicting Joplin working on the score as Alexander’s health fades, the second with him alone and despondent after her death. The singers who played the couple became Treemonisha and her adoring friend, Remus, in the opera proper.
Sneed gamely inhabited a Joplin-like idiom in the newly composed material, but the vocal writing — a bit stentorian for Joplin, a bit gospel for Alexander — tended more toward strenuous exertion than Joplin’s decorous delicacy. And Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj’s scrappy production felt wan and underpopulated, even in the company’s intimate theater, though the baritone Justin Austin vibrated with passionate life as Joplin and Remus.
More stylized — and effective, and relevant — was the conception, in an entirely different sound world than Joplin’s, by the Isango Ensemble. The group, from Cape Town, specializes in recasting canonical works like “The Magic Flute” in the milieu and musical style of South Africa, and its “Treemonisha” (which I saw on a video capture of the premiere run, in Caen, France, in October) is a contemporary-dress but dreamlike spectacle of marimbas, drumming, traditional choral chant and whistling, and swaying, stomping dance.
“A lot of the issues in the piece are ones we still face here,” Mark Dornford-May, Isango’s director, said in an interview. “Issues of education, of deep sexism. There wasn’t a great leap for us from 1880s America on a plantation to today in a township.”
Particularly indelible are the images early on. The mystical tree is a performer sprouting a huge headdress of green plumage, visited by a skeleton hauled on the back of a puppeteer in black, who abandons the baby Treemonisha before she is found by her adoptive mother, Monisha.
“We wanted to show quite clearly that if Monisha doesn’t take that child, that child is going to die,” Dornford-May said. “And we wanted to make it very clear that it’s an extraordinary act of generosity. With the poverty in the townships — life expectancy of 49, TB rife, H.I.V. rife — with that sense of poverty, disease and death hanging over people, to take in another mouth to feed is extraordinary.”
Content Source: www.nytimes.com