Top positive review
An unjustly neglected masterpiece
on August 4, 2003
Forget what everyone says about this work: it is not a musical, a "folk opera" or a "ragtime opera", it is a full-blown romantic opera, pure and simple. Like Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" it has been mis-classified for years; unlike "Porgy", however, it has not met with the former's unmitigated success on stage or in the opera house.
Joplin's score languished for years: due mainly to the fact of his early, tragic death, and the fact that the world (or at least the U.S.) was not ready for a grand opera written by an African-American, particularly an African-American composer of "lowly" rag-time music. Certainly, some other composers of African descent had achieved some status by this time, but mostly in Europe (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor comes to mind, his oratorio "Hiawatha" was a concert favorite for years), and I think it was mostly prejudice that kept Joplin's score from being heard.
Luckily, the amazing Joplin revival in the early 70's (in no small part due to its use in the film "The Sting") enabled us to hear his final masterpiece at last, albeit without his original orchestration, which has been lost. Although it caused a brief stir and engendered a complete recording and a TV telecast (which was available for a time on VHS), we've heard little of it since.
And this is altogether puzzling, as the music is some of the most magnificent and appealing ever to be written for the operatic stage. True, it's not forward-looking (much of it hearkens back to Weber and Bellini) and the libretto is not a literary masterpiece (but few are). However, it shows signs of genius that are hard to ignore: Monisha's opening aria, the duet for Monisha and Ned in the third act; and, in particular, the choral writing -- "We Want You to be Our Leader" is nothing short of breathtaking in its complexity and beauty.
There are also plenty of delightful lighter passages as well, full of the magic of Joplin's piano compositions; in fact, the mixture of light and heavier music in the score is perfectly constructed.
But, despite its successful debut in the 70's, the work has never taken hold in the operatic repertoire. Some see it merely as a curiosity; in an artical in the LA times a number of years ago which dealt with operatic works by African-Americans, it was labeled as nothing more than an "entertainment". This is unjust in the extreme. Anyone listening to this work who can remain unmoved and/or uplifted by it must have a heart of stone or a massive chip on their shoulder.
This recording remains, alas, the only complete one to date, and it is simply wonderful, a fantastic record of a lovingly felt undertaking. The cast is perfect, with Balthrop, Allen and White being the standouts, and Schuller's conducting of his re-constructed orchestrations shows his love for and complete understanding of this score. I only say alas because this is a score that's worthy of new interpretation; this only may happen once the work is (finally) taken seriously as the first great American opera. Hopefully this day will eventually come.