A Heroic Effort

October 11th, 2010

The title of this piece is one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a French general during World War I. Ten thousand French soldiers shout “Vive La France!”, leap out of their trenches and charge across no man’s land straight into the teeth of German artillery and machine-gun fire. They are mown down to the last man. A French general watching from a bunker lowers his binoculars and whispers, “What a heroic effort!”

I apply the term to a unique performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni that I once saw. This is truly one of the great works of Western music, rippling with power. The penultimate scene in which the statue demands that Don Giovanni repent his many sins, and Don Giovanni refuses, is surely one of the great moments in Western opera. The opera itself requires only eight on-stage performers, but it demands a fairly large orchestra and a full chorus to do justice to the majestic music.

I was therefore surprised to learn some years ago that a traveling company would be presenting the opera at the local (small-town) theater. How, I wondered, could they possibly make a living putting on such a big production for such a tiny audience? The advertisement suggested a fairly small cast, so my wife and I went to check it out.

What we saw was a marvel of ingenuity. There were only four performers, one of whom stood in for the entire orchestra using a single piano. The other three managed to handle all the parts by frequent off-stage changes of costume and a few liberties with the opera. OK, maybe it wasn’t a few liberties -- it was more a wholesale slash-and-burn operation. But they did manage to capture the basic story and most of the music.

But what I will never forget is that penultimate scene with the statue, Don Giovanni, and the servant all singing together as the piano player mightily attempted to convey music written for an entire orchestra. He pounded the keys, stomped the pedals, ranged up and down the scales, His hands flew furiously over the keyboard and I was certain that he would break his fingers.

In the end, however, it was just a piano and three singers, not a full orchestra with a mighty chorus. The piano did not roar, it merely tinkled. The contrast between what we saw and heard and what is done in the real opera was pathetic. What we saw was ingenious, courageous, and commendable. It was a truly heroic effort.