Oscar Straus and Leopold Jacobson recognized a good story when they saw one. The good story was Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Jacobson crafted the libretto, Straus composed the music and the result was the delightful operetta The Chocolate Soldier which opened in 1908 in Vienna.
Toronto Operetta Theatre’s General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin recognizes a good operetta, he produces it. Silva-Marin knows more about operetta than just about anyone south of Thunder Bay and he didn’t exactly stumble onto The Chocolate Soldier during the last eclipse of the moon but he has produced a highly enjoyable staging at the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts. For Torontonians operetta equals Silva-Marin.
(in the middle) Jennifer Taverner as Nadina, and Cian Horrobin as Alexius, with TOT Ensemble. Photo: Gary Beechey
The chocolate soldier is Bummerli, a Swiss in the Serbian army of 1885 who breaks into the bedroom of the lovely and romantic Nadina, a Bulgarian. Serbia and Bulgaria are at war, you see, and Nadina is the daughter of Colonel Popoff, the leader of the Bulgarian army.
Bummerli is a “coward” and he asks for chocolates and you may guess correctly that despite appearances to the contrary, the Swiss “coward” and the Bulgarian beauty do not go to war.
But Nadina is engaged to be married to the heroic Alexius who just won an extarordunary victory by leading a cavalry charge against the Serbian canons. Keep it to yourself, but the reason he charged was because his horse ran away with him and he won because the Serbians had no ammunition.
Straus has provided some beautiful, surcharged romantic arias, some patriotic songs, a few arguments and misunderstandings, and a good dose of humour until all wrinkles are worked out and they live happily ever after. No, I will not tell you how it ends and no peeking at a summary of the plot.
What do you need for a successful production? A lovely Nadina, with a beautiful voice is indispensable. She should make you want to live in Bulgaria of yore. Soprano Jennifer Taverner does all of that. She starts by gushing about “My hero,” goes through her “Alexius the Heroic” phase of her life and…well, I can’t tell you the rest but you will be glad you saw and heard Ms Taverner in the role.
Gregory Finney (Popoff) and Eugenia Dermentzis (Aurelia). Photo: Gary Beechey
Get an anti-heroic or perhaps heroic Bummerli and baritone Michael Nyby fills the bill. He has a well-honed voice and sings with apparent ease. He is manly enough to say that he is a coward and romantic enough to pretend that he is not.
The heroic Alexius played by tenor Cian Horrobin as a strutting, papier-mâché fool was a bit overdone and failed to be funny. His voice reached for the high notes and succeeded but in this case, the question of whether the tenor will get the girl remained wide open.
Baritone Gregory Finney plays the comic martinet role of Col. Popoff. Finney is a naturally funny actor and he got most of the laughs of the performance. He and the production should have gotten more laughs but perhaps it was the type of audience that was difficult to engage during the performance that I saw.
The lusciously-voiced Eugenia Dermentzis sang the role of Aurelia, Nadina’s mother and the Mascha, the competitor for Alexius’s heart was sung by the sweetly-voiced Anna Caroline Macdonald.
Peter Tiefenbach conducted the handful of musicians that are listed as an orchestra. The amazing thing is not how few they are but how well they perform. The chorus is equally good.
A couple of observations about Silva-Marin’s directing. On some occasions characters spoke directly to the audience even when they were addressing another person on the stage. Some of the humour, as I said, misfired. But aside from that this is a commendable production of a fine operetta. Considering the resources on hand for TOT, their productions, it is worth repeating, are done with one hand tied behind their back. The point is not the obstacles but their persistence and success. They should be performing at the Winter Garden with a full orchestra and more productions and performances.