‘The Chocolate Soldier’ from 1941: A Grand Operatic Film

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Since 2006, the Metropolitan Opera has recorded its operas during live performances in HD and then played them in movie theaters around the country. They also are available to stream online. Although this feature makes the live performances at the Met less special, it’s a very useful feature for singers to supplement their training by studying opera’s leading performers.

There are few such opportunities to actually see the greats of opera’s past, since the Met used to broadcast their productions only on radio. Aside from the occasional television performance, one usually has to settle for a grainy recording from a live concert. However, a few opera singers from the mid-20th century were preserved for posterity in up close and personal performances which you couldn’t even catch in the front row at the Met. This valuable source is classic movies, especially from MGM. This studio produced many lavish films in the 1930s-50s starring many classical musicians, including opera singers.

Epoch Times Photo
Poster for the American film “The Chocolate Soldier” (1941). (Public Domain)

The best example I know of such a film is “The Chocolate Soldier” from 1941. It stars Risë Stevens, a famous mezzo-soprano who starred at the Metropolitan Opera for over two decades, in her only film performance as a leading lady. Her leading man is Nelson Eddy, an operatically trained baritone who is best remembered for his eight film pairings with Jeanette MacDonald. This movie gave him a rare opportunity to star opposite a singer who was as classically trained as he was. Although the music comes from a 1908 German operetta of the same name by Oscar Straus, the story came from Ferenc Molnár’s 1910 play “The Guardsman.” In addition to the operetta songs, the score includes several classical arias, too. With an intriguing plot worthy of a Mozart farce, it truly is a grand operatic film.

Plots, Sub-Plots, and More Plots

Maria Lanyi (Stevens) and Karl Lang (Eddy) are married musical comedy stars in the Balkans. They are in the highly successful show “The Chocolate Soldier,” but they constantly fight backstage and sometimes even onstage. The two singers fell in love during this production, but after less than six months of marriage, they are arguing over silly disagreements, trying to upstage each other, and making each other jealous with casual flirtations. Their mutual friend, music critic Bernard Fischer (Nigel Bruce), tries to act as their mediator and referee, but he ends up doing little besides chuckling to himself over their foolishness.

Karl confides in Bernard his fear that Maria has grown bored of performing in musical comedy and of being married to him. Since he found her playing an opera record alone in the dark one evening, he is convinced that she is in love with romance and that she soon will find a new suitor to replace him. Instead of taking Bernard’s advice to sweep her off her feet by being romantic himself, he decides to test her fidelity with a complicated trick. He disguises himself as a Russian bass singer, Vassily Vassilievitch, and performs in a café where Maria is having dinner. She responds enthusiastically to his dramatic performance and his attentions at her table afterward.

Karl isn’t satisfied with Maria’s reaction to his façade, so he continues the charade the next day with flowers and a note. When he reveals his masquerade to Bernard, the latter is appalled by the dishonesty. Meanwhile, Maria’s personal maid and confidante, Pugsy (Florence Bates), revels in helping her mistress and surrogate daughter arrange a rendezvous with the “mad Russian,” since she and Karl have never gotten along. Even the timid housemaid, Liesel (Nydia Westman), helps with the conspiracy. Although it’s driving him mad, Karl can’t stop the charade, since he is desperate to find out just how far Maria will go. Is Maria being unfaithful to Karl through her fickle flirtations with Vassily, or does she see through her husband’s disguise?

Epoch Times Photo
Risë Stevens visits Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan during the 1952-1953 academic year. (Public Domain)

Opera Music

The score of “The Chocolate Soldier” includes many memorable songs, all of which are supposed to be from the musical comedy in which the lead couple performs. The most famous is “My Hero,” a love song which Maria sings as a solo and as a duet with Karl. “Sympathy” is another dramatic duet they sing in the show. Other pieces from the show within the movie include the chorus number “Thank the Lord the War is Over,” “Forgive,” and “The Title Song,” which is performed in a lavish, magical number with dancing soldiers and ballerinas. The oddball piece in the show is “Searching for the Spy,” a very goofy number performed in the show by a group of very mismatched bumblers who sing in funny voices, perform Turkish dances, and do acrobatic tricks! You could call it the movie’s comedy relief. In addition, Maria sings a song called “Tiralala” outside of the play, as a serenade for Vassily.

In the story, Maria was formerly an opera singer, which Karl uses to woo her as Vassily. In a little performance in their parlor, Maria sings “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta douce voix,” a famous aria sung by Delilah in Camille Saint-Saens’s French opera “Samson et Dalila.” It’s amazing to see Risë Stevens perform one of the most famous mezzo-soprano arias in the operatic repertoire at an extremely close angle.

Nelson Eddy also gets a chance to display his operatic abilities by singing two classical arias when disguised as Vassily. He makes his introduction as the Russian singer by performing “The Song of the Flea,” a comical aria by Modest Mussorgsky, in the original Russian, which is one of the hardest languages in which to sing. His Russian interpretation is amazing, and his vocal intensity is very impressive! It’s no wonder that even his best friend, Bernard, is fooled by his performance. Later, Vassily sings “Evening Star” from “Tannhäuser” by Richard Wagner, the famous baritone aria which Karl heard Maria playing on a record and later singing herself in her moonlit bedroom. Vassily sings it in English with a strong Russian accent instead of the original German, which would be adding too many languages to the mix! The score also includes one original song written for the film, “While My Lady Sleeps” by Bronislau Kaper and Gus Kahn, a serenade which Vassily sings beneath Maria’s window one evening.

Nelson Eddy in a 1935 publicity photo. (Public Domain)

One Role, Two Characters

Some movies feature the interesting gimmick of having one actor play more than one role. Whether the actor is playing twins, a parent and child, an ancestor and descendant, another form of relatives, or even unrelated lookalikes, it’s a fascinating phenomenon, which required the use of split-screen and double exposure techniques during the Golden Era of Hollywood. “The Chocolate Soldier” is very rare in that it features one actor playing two characters but just one role. Nelson Eddy not only acts but looks like two completely different people as Karl Lang and Vassily Vassilievitch. As Karl, he is fair-haired, clean-shaven, and dressed in stylish suits. As Vassily, he has thick black hair, a big black beard, a chiseled facial structure from makeup and prosthetics, traditional Russian guardsman clothes, and huge boots, which make him taller than he is. Karl is sensitive, impulsive, and a trifle overly emotional. Vassily is intense, dramatic, forceful, and aggressive. Besides the amazing Russian accent he affects, his voice sounds very different in the two roles. As Vassily, he makes his singing and speaking voices sound deeper and louder, adding a Slavic nasality.

Nelson certainly has his match in Risë. Although his movies with Jeanette MacDonald are beautiful and emotional, Miss Stevens was the only leading lady who matched Nelson Eddy’s operatic training and flare. The result is an amazing movie, which is a valuable study for opera singers and fans and a pure delight for everyone else.

“The Chocolate Soldier” will have you laughing, sighing, wondering, and loving the story and the talented performers from start to finish. It’s truly a musical masterpiece!

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