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A frustrating puzzlement

Jane Mallett Theatre
01/24/2012 -  & February 25, 26, 2012
John Beckwith: Taptoo!
Todd Delaney (John Graves Simcoe), Michael Barrett (Seth Sr.), Allison Angelo (Atahentsic), Daniel Bedrossian (Seth Jr.), Teddy Perdikoulias (Ebenezer Jr.), Gregory Finney (Williams, Ebenezer Sr.), Mark Petracchi (Jesse Harple, Parson), Sarah Hicks (Mrs. Harple)
Toronto Operetta Theater Orchestra and Ensemble, Larry Beckwith (conductor)
Guillermo Silva-Marin (Director, Lighting, Set Decor, Dance Sequences)

John Beckwith (© Walter Curtin)

Composer John Beckwith (born in 1927) is arguably the dean of English-Canadian composers, what with a large catalogue of works and having taught many of today’s notable composers (he himself studied under the legendary Nadia Boulanger). Librettist James Reaney (1926-2011) was one the Canada’s most lauded and performed playwrights. Their collaborations began in 1949. Taptoo! was their fourth and final opera and first saw light of day at a workshop performance at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio in 1994 (which I attended). It has since received student performances in Montreal and Toronto. This Toronto Operetta Theatre run marks its first professional production.

A more accurate description of the work would be patriotic pageant in the musical form of a ballad opera. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was a model, and Taptoo! work makes use of some 20 songs from the era of its action, such as Yankee Doodle, Over the Hills and Far Away, and Rule Britannia.

The plot follows a group of colonists who find themselves on the wrong (royalist) side of the American War of Independence. The Loyalists as they are now known make their way northward and become the pioneering residents of the new colony of Upper Canada. The action takes place over a 30-year period. (You can tell it isn’t really an operetta.)

In spite of its lengthy gestation period, the work has many unfortunate flaws. It is divided into 14 scenes which gives it a very choppy rhythm. (One is reminded of Prokofiev’s War and Peace with its 13 scenes - however it is held together by sweeping themes.) The librettist did extensive research into the lives of real people and as a result a lot of documentary information is presented to us; one wishes the creators had stood back and taken a blue pencil to some of it. It has almost 40 roles assumed in this production by 20 performers - this makes it a challenge to follow or even discern the main plot threads.

The central plot is set in motion thanks to the rivalry between two boys (one on either side) who show up 30 years later on opposite political sides in Upper Canada as the War of 1812 looms. Two of the main roles are therefore taken by two by trebles who understandably do not have the voices or dramatic presence to carry the lengthy work (abut two and a half hours totally running time). Projected titles would probably have helped get words across, but when the performance is in English and staged in a smallish (500-seat) venue, titles really should not be necessary.

The title is derived from the end-of-day military ritual; the drum and bugle music associated with this has been used by the composer in creating his score which is heavy on the brass, winds and percussion. Such instruments are best used as exclamation points and they weary the ear when used so incessantly. The prelude to Act II ,“Exiles are we”, comes a welcome aural relief as the focus is on the entire ensemble singing as a chorus.

The work does have its good points. Some of the characters are clearly delineated (at least partly thanks to strong performers). There are effective humorous elements, such as when a battle scene includes a debate over the correct pronunciation of “lieutenant”. The class divisions in the new colony are brought forward by the use of differing social dances, decorous and ceremonial for the upper class, jolly and bouncy for the proletariat.

Notable performers include Robert Longo who brings leading man panache to the role of US General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Todd Delaney gives an equally strong portrayal as the Loyalist counterpart, John Graves Simcoe, who has a touch of the upper class twit about him. Michael Barrett stands out as Seth Harple, the Loyalist boy grown to adulthood who marries an Indian woman, Atahentsic. The 15-member orchestra displays full competence under conductor Larry Beckwith, son of the composer (and also, incidentally, director of his own musical organization, Toronto Masque Theatre).

In the end what we have with Taptoo! is a ballad opera without the requisite snap or satire and an epic without the necessary sweep. Its lack of dramatic focus is revealed by the ending: as the US invasion of 1812 begins, the piece abruptly ends mid-phrase. The work simply cancels itself out.

Michael Johnson



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