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Review: Toronto Operetta Theatre's Taptoo! an unfortunate shambles

By John Terauds on February 25, 2012

Taptoo! ensemble at the Jane Mallett Theatre

Don’t think for a minute that it’s fun to write a scathing review of a new Canadian opera, especially when I firmly believe that this country desperately needs more indigenous new works.

But there is only one way to honestly describe the production of Taptoo! unveiled by Toronto Operetta Theatre at the Jane Mallett Theatre on Friday night: It’s a mess.

Written by Toronto composer John Beckwith and the late playwright James Reaney several years ago, and left untouched following a University of Toronto student production, Taptoo! rides the rift between Britain and the American colonies from the time of the Declaration of Independence to the founding of Upper Canada and the city of York, which would later become Toronto.

To be fair, Beckwith has crafted a beguiling score that blends a modern sensibility with historical and folk references. His clever orchestration is a textbook example of how to use each instrument for maximum colour and effect. The music provides drive, as well as atmosphere.

The production contributes some fine singing from many of the soloists, as well as the whole ensemble. Conductor Larry Beckwith keeps the whole thing going with crisp efficiency.

The rest of Taptoo! — with two acts that stretch to nearly 3 hours, with intermission — is a shambles, starting with a plot that can’t decide whether it wants to be War and Peace or Cavalleria Rusticana.

Soldiers come and go, parents worry about children, Major John Graves Simcoe struts and frets upon the Jane Mallett Theatre stage, flags fly and drums beat, all to no coherent purpose.

One of the joys of seeing opera in English is being able to follow every detail of what’s going on. But, in this case, Reaney’s unpoetic and unmusical libretto, imperfect elocution from many members of the cast, an occasionally overpowering orchestra and a lack of surtitles conspired to make the words unintelligible much of the time.

Combined with frequent scene changes and an ever-mobile cast — directed, costumed and lit with no apparent cohesion or larger vision by company artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin — the ongoing flurry repeatedly left me scratching my head about who these people are, and what they are doing on stage.

Perhaps with careful workshopping, Taptoo! could be re-written and whittled down into some sort of coherence, because it seems a shame to waste the fine music it contains.

But the more practical thing to do would be to quietly drop Taptoo! into time’s bottomless drawer of nobly failed artistic projects, so that it can quietly turn to dust.

There are repeat performances on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. For details, visit www.stlc.com.

John Terauds

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