Oscar Straus: The Chocolate Soldier

Bard Music Festival

New York, 25 August 2010 4 stars

The Chocolate SoldierOscar Straus’s Der tapfere Soldat, which had its première at the Theater an der Wien in November, 1908, has never been a tremendous hit in the German-speaking operetta world. Perhaps the satire directed at militarism was a bit too potent for the Kaiser’s subjects. (One of its few revivals in Vienna was after the second World War, when the Nazi restrictions on works of Jewish manufacture ended.) Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, the musical version by Straus and librettists Bernauer and Jacobson was constrained by Shaw from using any Shavian dialogue.

Of course, in English-speaking areas, The Chocolate Soldier was a resounding success, to Shaw’s eternal (and financial) chagrin, as he had refused to accept any royalties. Hollywood even turned it into a film in 1941, at MGM, but using Molnár’s The Guardsman as its plot, as Shaw refused to let his story be used for the money Metro was offering. There were several remountings in New York, and the operetta toured profitably for years.

The new production at the Bard Festival was a joyous affair, musically. Using a specially prepared orchestral reduction for twelve pieces by Jack Parton (including a harp), conductor James Bagwell finely brought out many of Straus’s delightful conceits, from the heavy Balkan colorations for the soldiers and lighter ones for the wedding, as well as a Swiss motif for the chocolate soldier himself, Bumerli.

In its construction, the operetta’s first act is something of a chamber piece, quite unusual for its day. The act in fact closes as it begins, with a trio of women; instead of the customary long finale, the long trio (“Ti-ra-la-la”) romantically and slyly comments on the arrival of Bumerli. The Serbian male chorus only intrudes in the middle with its spy-seeking oomphing.

From the second act, things become more regulation Viennese-operetta, with a succession of mostly duets as one couple runs off to be replaced by another.

Fortunately, these duets are for the most part enchanting, and in the centre of the act comes the fabulous dressing-gown (or coat) ensemble, in which this incriminating piece of apparel has to be recovered, set to a delightful succession of tunes. But the trump card is the Act II finale, beginning with the waltz “Forgive, forgive, forgive” and ending, triumphantly, and sensationally, with the entire chorus reprising “My Hero”, the score’s most famous melody. Afterwards, the gents, at least, was filled with patrons humming this irresistible tune. Act III, typically short, has at least two adorable numbers, one being the letter song for Nadina, as well as the wonderful Serbian double wedding.

The skimpy scenic construct was forgiven with Carol Bailey’s hilariously frivolous Balkan costumes for the women, with just a fashionable whiff of the 21st century. Director Will Pomerantz kept things at a brisk pace, with only a few questionable devices, like an audience-member being drafted by the Serbian forces (which at least delighted the patrons) and the automaton rendering of the admirable title duet, which I found silly.

The singers varied considerably in their vocal prowess, their diction, and their ability to surmount the orchestra, which though small was not in a pit. The Bumerli, Andrew Wilkowske, had the finest voice, and for entire evening it seemed the former PM Gordon Brown had suddenly become an operetta singer. Also vocally fetching were Jeffrey Tucker (as Popoff) and Lynne Abeles (Nadina), Camille Zamora (Mascha), and Madeleine Gray (Aurelia). Glenn Seven Allen looked fine as swaggering Alexius, but I wanted considerably more from his tenor in his numbers.

The translation was obviously the product of various hands; why is it that I still prefer the Stanislaus Stange words from the 1909 New York production?

Lovely to see attention paid to the astonishingly fertile Oscar Straus: perhaps companies will take a look at his other immensely attractive operettas.

By Richard Traubner