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Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, ‘staged with purposeful energy and intimacy’ at San Francisco Opera in a production now on DVD

issues before putting anything onstage. One thing is for sure: the fact that the 1927 work embraces elements of operetta and musical theatre makes it an ideal vehicle for extravagant treatment, as can be discerned in the 2014 San Francisco Opera production captured on this DVD. As staged by Francesco Zambello with purposeful energy and intimacy, the human dramas that unfold on and off the stage of the Cotton Blossom are brought to thrilling life.

Lyricist-librettist Hammerstein’s adaptation of the Edna Ferber novel gets into theatrical trouble in Act 2, when the narrative tries to cover several decades of social history via too many interweaving stories. But the San Francisco production is so colourful, swift and musically assured that a viewer can bask in Kern’s glorious music while suspending the requisite disbelief and enjoying the overall gorgeousness. The glory begins in the pit, where John DeMain conducts an urgent and flexible account of the score in Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations.

All of the principals are up to the tasks before them, starting with Patricia Racette, an impassioned and poignant Julie, who makes the most of her Act 2 song, ‘Bill’ (lyrics by PG Wodehouse). As Joe, Morris Robinson applies vocal gold to ‘Ol’ Man River,’ which he happily reprises toward the end of the show, and Angela Renée Simpson fills the part of his mate, Queenie, to the lusty and touching brim. Michael Todd Simpson makes an ideal Gaylord – dashing, vulnerable and possessed of a glowing baritone. Heidi Stober is a gleaming and affecting Magnolia, especially in the conflicted moments in Act 2.

The work’s comic roles are deftly handled, from Bill Irwin’s rubber-bodied Cap’n Andy and Harriet Harris’s ornery Parthy to the bright vaudeville team of Kirsten Wyatt (Ellie Mae) and John Bolton (Frank). And hats off to the San Francisco Opera Chorus, who nudge Show Boat magnificently into the realm of opera. Donald Rosenberg

JM Stephenson  The Devil’s Tale Matt Bean narr Western Illinois University  Faculty Chamber Players / Mike Fansler  Ravello F RR7906 (54’ • DDD)

James M Stephenson’s imaginatively conceived and wellexecuted sequel to

Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, for the same narrator and seven instruments, takes place in an incongruous time warp between Las

Vegas, Nevada and Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is an entertaining 55-minute theatrical compression of homespun Midwest sensibility, compositional virtuosity and superb instrumental playing. While Stephenson kept the Stravinsky instrumentation, he abandoned the original Ramuz story and with it the solo violin; he added a part for Joe’s girlfriend along with three exhilarating dances, and a happy if subdued ending; as for the book, which Stephenson decided ‘to rhyme, but leave the rhythm rather loose’, no shadow of war hangs over this surprisingly dour Devil’s Tale. Overall, it is effectively Stravinskian in the tension it engenders between the straightforward, flatly narrated story and the highly charged score, despite its minimalist instrumentation, with the naive charm of Broadway in its DNA.

In addition to quotes from Stravinsky, Stephenson incorporates into his own music and transforms a range of influences, from Prokofievian bassoons to echoes of Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. As a bonus, each of the short but brilliant Three Dances, rollicking with elements of American circus, would make a brilliant encore to performances of the Histoire itself.

Adding to the sense of event, the seven Western Illinois University faculty members conducted by Mike Fansler, working hand-in-glove with narrator Matt gramophone.co.uk

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