Masterworks Broadway’s recent release of the 1958 studio cast recording of the classic 1908 operetta, The Chocolate Soldier, is a welcome opportunity for modern audiences to become reacquainted with one of the finer examples of an art form much neglected in this day and age. Sung-through musicals like Les Miz and melodramatic extravaganzas like Phantom come close, but while one may argue that they are the contemporary heirs of the older genre, they are clearly the product of a different sensibility. The Chocolate Soldier belongs to another age: it smacks of evening dress, handlebar mustaches, and horses and carriages. Still, if its form is of another time, its message at least is clearly of today.
Based on George Bernard Shaw’s anti-war satire, Arms and the Man, The Chocolate Soldier ridicules the idea that war is a heroic endeavor, by presenting as its hero a man who carries chocolates in his ammunition belt rather than bullets. Escaping from the front lines, he sneaks into the bedroom of a beautiful young lady who is engaged to an enemy officer, with the obvious results. Shaw allowed his play to be used as the basis of the operetta, according to Stanley Green’s program notes, on condition that the names of the characters be changed and none of his dialogue be used for fear that a popular musical would have a negative effect on productions of the original.
The operetta premiered in Vienna in 1908 with music by Oscar Straus and a libretto by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson. An English translation by Stanislaus Stange debuted on Broadway in 1909. The 1958 recording features Metropolitan Opera stars Rise Stevens as Nadina and Robert Merrill as Buneli, the eponymous chocolate soldier. Peter Palmer, who had starred as Li’l Abner on Broadway, played Alexius, Nadina’s fiancé, and Jo Sullivan is Mascha, the maid he eventually marries.
At times the music tends toward what used to be called the schmaltzy; at other times there are touches of Gilbert and Sullivan. The best known piece is “My Hero” from the first of the three acts. The “Come, come, I love you truly” section is custom made for the gorgeous soprano of Rise Stevens. It is reprised in a duet with Merrill as part of the finale to Act II. It is an iconic piece in the operetta canon, the kind of song that is the glory of the genre for those who like it and probably the object of derision for those who don’t. The lyrics may be a bit clunky for modern taste, but the lush melody makes up for that in spades.
“Never Was There Such a Lover” is a clever falling-out-of-love duet between Stevens and Palmer. “The Chocolate Soldier” could have been a witty duet for Stevens and Merrill, but it loses a lot through some of the phrasing in the chorus.
Gilbert and Sullivan echoes begin with the first act Introduction, both in the marching male ensemble and the young maiden trio. “Seek the Spy,” a piece for the ensemble, could have come right out of Gilbert and Sullivan. The same is true for “Alexius the Heroic,” a set piece for Palmer along with the ensemble. The cutesy “Letter Song” in the third act, on the other hand, seems less of an echo; it is also less compelling musically. I guess if you are going to be channeling anyone, you can’t do better than Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Chocolate Soldier is not for everyone. It is a period piece for a period that has long gone; but for many it will bring back fond memories. For those of you—cancel that. For those of us who loved The Student Prince, this album is a treasure. For those of us who remember Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, this album is a must. For those of us who look forward to the New Year’s Eve productions of Die Fledermaus, this is an album that belongs in our music libraries.