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Treemonisha is performed at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto until June 17.DAHLIA KATZ/Handout

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  • Title: Treemonisha
  • Written by: Leah-Simone Bowen and Cheryl Davis, adapted from original material by Scott Joplin
  • Director: Weyni Mengesha
  • Actors: Neema Bickersteth, Andrea Baker, Kristin Renee Young, Nicholas Davis
  • Company: Volcano, in association with The Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast
  • Venue: St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: June 6-17

Composer Scott Joplin is perhaps best-known for his influential 1899 work, Maple Leaf Rag, but he also wrote two operas: A Guest of Honor (1903) and Treemonisha (1911). While the score for the former is lost, the score for the latter was rediscovered in 1970 and given a full performance two years later; in 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music, and Treemonisha has gone on to be presented at theatres in the U.S. and Europe.

Now, a new Treemonisha, seven years in the making, is being presented in Toronto as part of this year’s Luminato Festival, with local company TO Live as co-presenter. This version reimagines the work musically and narratively, and sets it with a distinct 21st-century focus incorporating intersectional feminism and Black American history. With a 10-person orchestra led by Panamanian-American Kalena Bovell (the first Black woman conductor in Canadian opera history), Treemonisha uses a historical framework of late 19th-century America to explore the search for identity within wildly different communities.

Abandoned by her mother (Ineza Mugisha), the title character (Neema Bickersteth) is raised by Monisha (Andrea Baker) and Ned (Nicholas Davis) after being found in the nook of a tree – a clear nod from Joplin to Richard Wagner and his famous The Ring of the Nibelung series. Indeed, Treemonisha creates its own special brand of mythology, and here finds an engaging blend of sounds reflecting that ethos thanks to a sparky new orchestration and arrangement of the score by Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth. It’s one that makes liberal use of its own form of leitmotifs, particularly with regard to the two distinct groups presented within the narrative and symbolized by the title character and Zodzerick.

Playwright Leah-Simone Bowen, together with co-librettist Cheryl Davis, have fashioned a story in which Zodzerick is a member of a community of Maroons (enslaved Africans who had escaped slavery to live as free men and women) who practice their old spiritual beliefs in the peace and relative isolation of nature. They are mistrustful of the white appeasement and European stylings of the freedmen, as represented by Treemonisha, her adopted parents, church community and especially her betrothed, Remus (Ashley Faatoalia). The music provides clear cues for each world, the jaunty strings and woodwinds offering the toe-tapping sounds of ragtime and swooning late-Romantic writing which Joplin clearly relished; equally effective is the pulsating percussive sounds and some very intoxicating kora playing (by Tunde Jegede) to evoke the world of the Maroons.

Director Weyni Mengesha treats the romance between Treemonisha and Zodzerick with care, with their physical placement often revealing of the title character’s emotional states. When he initially approaches her with the “bag of luck,” she is awkward and scared – if intrigued – and keeps a cautious distance; later, she is quick to kiss him in the forest (to the cheers of the opening-night audience). Set designer Camelia Koo’s elegant simplicity makes clever use of various textures (twine, cloth, wood), while Nadine Grant’s late 19th-century costumes form an especially intriguing visual contrast to one another, all muted colours and frills on one side, vibrant hues and draping on the other.

Soprano Neema Bickersteth is an especially commanding stage presence, her colourful voice handling the wide-ranging vocal writing and stylistic turns, and is beautifully complemented by mezzo soprano Andrea Baker’s touching Monisha; their scene together in the first act, when Treemonisha’s origins are revealed, is shot through with tenderness. As Zodzerick, baritone Cedric Barry showcases a luscious, glowing tone and engaging stage presence, while tenor Ashley Faatoalia, as the hapless Remus, offers a pure, radiant sound and clarion diction.

The sounds of new and old within the orchestra are kept under careful watch by Bovell’s firm hand, although at times they form an uneasy alliance, which is probably the point: It’s precisely that friction that drives much of the narrative. The split between identities – American, African, daughter, lover, God-fearing, nature-loving – and the anguish resulting from such divides holds much of the power of this reimagined Treemonisha.

Only at the conclusion is there a sonic unity, one that still wisely gives Joplin the last word, textually and musically. Such an ending proves a suitable metaphor for the presentation itself, a production by Volcano (a Toronto-based theatre company) in association with The Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast – and to the power of bridging old and new within the operatic idiom. It can be done, Treemonisha whispers; the will is all.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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