Straus: Der Tapfere Soldat (The Chocolate Soldier) / Kohler, Kranzle, Dickie, Stein, Borst, WDR
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STRAUS Der Tapfere Soldat • Siegfried Köhler, cond; Caroline Stein ( Nadina ); Johannes Martin Kränzie ( Bumerli ); Martina Borst ( Mascha ); John Dickie ( Alexius ); Gertraud Wagner ( Aurelia ); Helmut Berger ( Popoff ); WDR RO; Händel Collegium Köln • CAPRICCIO C5089 (2 CDs: 88:06)
The irascible playwright and man of letters George Bernard Shaw seems to have had a gift for producing stories that were ripe for adaption as light musical comedy. Shaw did not live to see his Pygmalion turned by Lerner and Loewe into the megahit My Fair Lady and make superstars of Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Audrey Hepburn. The British pundit (and one-time opera critic) was front and center, however, as his little antiwar drama Arms and the Man was turned by Oscar Straus and his Viennese librettists into the operetta Der Tapfere Soldat (The Valiant Soldier) and became an international hit. In fact, Shaw worried about his satirical play being turned into bad musical comedy. He agreed to let the story be used only if (1) none of his dialog or character names were used, (2) the operetta were to be advertised as a parody of his work, and (3) no remuneration was to be made. Never widely popular in the pre-World War I Germanic countries where soldiers were heroes and the military a revered institution, Der Tapfere Soldat went on to become a smash hit in New York in 1909 as the more aptly titled Chocolate Soldier , and then one year later scored another triumph right under Shaw’s nose in London. The old man publicly denigrated Straus’s popular operetta but lived to regret his lack of share in its box-office success.
The story involves a likeable young soldier in the Bulgarian army who, to avoid the fierce raging battle outside, climbs up the drainpipe and into the home of a mother, daughter, and another young friend, whose menfolk are also off at the war (actually, he drops right into the daughter’s bedroom). When threatened by his own gun by daughter Nadina, the soldier, Bumerli, laughs and tells her his cartridge case is full of chocolates; he has no bullets for his weapon. In spite of his not being the type of romantic hero she has been dreaming of, Nadina falls for her little chocolate soldier, as do the two other women. They hide him when soldiers come searching and provide him civilian clothes to aid his escape. Trouble comes when Nadina’s father and fiancé return with the regiment. Bumerli also turns up, ostensibly to return the clothes, but he is in love with Nadina. Outrage and hurt feelings ensue, but Alexius, Nadina’s intended, shows a marked preference for the young friend, Mascha. The typical operetta muddle is eventually sorted out and the parents are made happy when it turns out the chocolate soldier is the son of a wealthy Swiss businessman. So much for true love.
Straus wrote many catchy melodies for the early Viennese silver-age work, the most famous of which is Nadina’s solo “Komm, komm, Held meiner Traume” (Come, Come, Hero of My Dreams). Also popular was the humorous duet between the two leads, “Ach, du kleiner Praliné-Soldat” (Ah, You Little Praline Soldier). This recording was made for WDR radio in Cologne in 1993 and features clear, pure-voiced, light soprano Caroline Stein in the lead role of Nadina. She sings very well both alone and in ensemble and is much the best singer on the recording. Baritone Johannes Martin Kränzie sings Bumerli in a pleasant voice but has a noticeable wobble when he pushes his upper range. He blends in well in the ensembles, of which there are many in this light work. The second romantic couple of tenor John Dickie and mezzo Martina Borst sing well in this style of music, as do Mom and Dad, contralto Gertraud Wagner and bass-baritone Helmut Berger.
As far as I am aware, this is the only recording of Der Tapfere Soldat in German. The Ohio Light Opera Company recorded it in English in the late ’90s on the Newport label, where it is still available. A 1958 recording of highlights in English on RCA features much the best voices led by mezzo Risë Stevens and baritone Robert Merrill. That recording is out of print but can be obtained as a facsimile CD-R from ArkivMusic. Capriccio sadly does not provide a libretto, but there is a more than adequate synopsis and some brief bios. If, like me, you want these operettas in their original language, this is the one to buy. It will provide you an hour and a half of very enjoyable, frothy light music. Recommended.
FANFARE: Bill White
Oscar Straus (note the spelling of Straus – only one ‘s’ at its end) was born in Vienna on 6 March 1870 but was not related to the famous Strauss dynasty.
He began his career emulating the satirical Offenbach, with Die Lustigen Nibelungen (The Merry Nibelungs). Richard Traubner in his excellent book, Operetta, A Theatrical History, suggests that it was “too musically advanced for Viennese ears” and national-socialist pro-Wagnerians were not amused. Those who relish the idea of lampooning of The Ring might like to know that Capriccio have a one-CD Köln recording of Oscar Straus’s The Merry Nibelungs again conducted by Köhler (C5088). Noticing the great success of Lehár’s The Merry Widow, in 1905, Straus decided to capitulate to public taste and entered the comfortable dream world of sentimental Viennese operetta with his smash success - in Austria and Germany if not in America and England - of Ein Waltztraum (A Waltz Dream) of 1907.
Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier (German title: Der tapfere Soldat or Der Praliné-Soldat) followed in 1908. It was based on George Bernard Shaw's 1894 play, Arms and the Man and the libretto was by Rudolf Bernaur and Leopold Jacobson. G.B. himself was not at all keen on such an adaptation of his play which had been successful in its Viennese run and only accepted the situation provided that Straus’s operetta was promoted as an unauthorized parody of his play and that he received no royalties for it. A bad mistake - because the show was a big hit in London and New York - but not quite so in Europe because of political sensitivities surrounding the Balkans where the action of the story was set. Later, Shaw tried to recoup some of his financial losses when M-G-M approached him for the film rights for The Chocolate Soldier. Louis B. Mayer refused Shaw’s exorbitant demands and the film went ahead with a mix of Straus’s and other’s music but to a different plot based on Ferenc Molnár's play Testor . The 1941 film starred Nelson Eddy and Risë Stevens – although Jeanette MacDonald had originally been pencilled in to star with Eddy.
There’s a very good Wikipedia article on Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier that also details all the songs. Briefly the story is set in Bulgaria in 1885 during the war between Serbia and Bulgaria. Nadina, her friend Mascha and her mother are missing their menfolk away at the hostilities. Suddenly a soldier, handsome and charming bursts into her bedroom. He is Bumerli, a Swiss mercenary serving in the Serbian army. He is an ordinary soldier quite unlike her supposedly heroic fiancée Alexius. Bumerli carries chocolates in his pouch instead of ammunition! His charm captivates the ladies and as Act I closes all three are smitten. They all give him photographs of themselves inscribed with loving messages. He puts all three in his great coat and promptly forgets them. But he cannot forget Nadina. Six months later he returns for her but the three photographs are produced. Jealousy flare up between Nadina and Mascha, Bumerli is thought to be fickle and faithless and comic complications ensue. All is happily resolved at the end.
The big hit of the show is the well-known and popular waltz song, ‘Komm, komm, Held meiner Träum’ (‘Come, come hero of my dreams’). Here it is sung most beguilingly by sweet-voiced Caroline Stein as Nadina. She is singing about her Alexius in Act I, her fiancée and imagined hero, who turns out to be nothing of the kind. The lower tenor timbre of Kränzle makes Bumerli sound just that little bit too mature for Nadina. However the charm of their duet ‘Weill’s Leben suss und herzlich ist’ (‘Because life is sweet and beautiful’) cannot be diminished. Much of the music comprises ensemble writing - quartets, quintets, and sextets and soloists with choir. The Act I ensemble song with comic material for the soldiers searching for Bumerli and an interpolated stirring patriotic song lustily sung by Nadina is a highlight – so, too, is the following charming waltz-song trio for Nadina, Mascha and Aurelia They sing ‘Tiralala’ as all besotted, they dream of their Chocolate soldier. This number has some lovely orchestral felicities in the strings and woodwinds. Kränzle’s wistful Act II song ‘If one can, as one wants’ has an introduction that echoes the ‘Tiralala’. Kränzle has another charming if argumentative duet ‘Es war einmal ein Fräulein’ (‘There was once a maiden’) with Nadina before Act II’s exuberant finale closes with a ringing reprise of the big number, ‘Komm, komm, Held meiner Träum’ (‘Come, come hero of my dreams’). Conductor, Köhler consistently delivers telling sentimental and witty accompaniments to all the numbers. Mention should be made of the delicious irony of the orchestral accompaniments to the waspish numbers of Act II like the bickering between Nadina and Bumerli in ‘Pardon, pardon pardon! Ich steig ja nur auf den Balkon’ (Pardon, I rise only on the balcony)
A charming recording of a delightful operetta.
Ian Lace, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: C5089
Composer: Oscar Straus
Conductor: Siegfried Köhler
Orchestra/Ensemble: WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Performer: Caroline Stein, Helmut Berger, Johannes Martin Kränzle, John Dickie, Martina Borst