Stage Door Review

Notre Dame de Paris

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

✭✭✭✭

music by Richard Cocciante, book & lyrics by Luc Plamondon, directed by Gilles Maheu

Nicolas & Charles Talar & Tandem.mu, National Arts Centre, Ottawa

August 2-6, 2022;

Place des Arts, Montreal

August 9-20, 2022

Gringoire: “Et ceci est le temps des cathédrales

La pierre devient

Statue, musique et poésie”

Notre Dame de Paris, the second most famous French musical after Les Misérables (1985), has returned again to Ontario, after a Covid-caused two-year delay, as part of its 20th anniversary tour. The musical with music by French-Italian songwriter Richard Cocciante, book and lyrics by Québécois lyricist Luc Plamondon and staged by Québécois director Gilles Maheu, premiered in Paris in 1998. It has played in 24 countries and been translated into nine languages. While it is adored in Quebec, it almost unknown in English Canada. I last saw it during its five-night run in Toronto in June 1999. I wasn’t going to miss it during its short touchdown in Ottawa.

Like Les Misérables, Notre Dame de Paris, is also based on a novel by Victor Hugo (Notre-Dame de Paris in French, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). Unlike many of the best-known adaptations like the 1939 film or the 1996 Disney movie, Plamondon’s libretto remains remarkably close to the plot of the 1831 novel and retains its unhappy ending.

Plamondon’s main alteration is to replace the novel’s omniscient narrator with the historical character of the poet and playwright Pierre Gringoire (c.1474-1538). Through Gringoire, Plamondon channels an overview of the historical background that makes up so much of the novel. His opening song “Le Temps des cathédrales” sets the action in 1482 and speaks of the importance of religious architecture in embodying art and poetry for the common people. Unlike the Gringoire of the novel, Plamondon’s poet is only minimally involved in the action of the story.

Hugo’s novel concerns the prejudice, still rife in Europe, against the Roma people commonly known as “gypsies”. Plamondon expands the focus from the Roma to include all people who are outcasts, refugees and “sans-papiers”. They seek asylum in Notre Dame, but Archdeacon Claude Frollo not only refuses them refuge but encourages Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers of the King’s Archers, to attack them.

A change occurs when Esmeralda, foster daughter of Clopin, the leader of the outcasts, sings and dances to entertain the outcasts. Three men are immediately smitten by her even though none of them should allow himself the hope of possessing her. One is Frollo himself, whose status as priest should preclude this desire. Another is Phoebus, who is already engaged to the noblewoman Fleur-de-Lys. The third is Quasimodo, the cathedral’s bell-ringer, a deformed man, not only a hunchback, but deaf, half blind and crippled, whom Frollo raised from infancy. He knows it is foolish to think that anyone as beautiful as Esmeralda could love anyone as ugly as he, though he is overjoyed when she alone gives him water to drink when he is being punished for a crime Frollo asked him to commit.

Each of the men reacts to his situation in different ways. Phoebus  arranges to meet Esmeralda in a brothel and is surprised to find that she returns his feelings. Quasimodo seeks to help Esmeralda any way he can, and eventually he begins to work contrary to his master Frollo’s orders. Frollo, since he can’t expunge his feelings for Esmeralda, seeks to remove their cause by accusing her of sorcery and of his own crime of trying to kill Phoebus. The penalty is hanging.

Plamondon is aware of the geometrical nature of the plot. Both Esmeralda and Fleur-de-Lys sing the same song about Phoebus that he is "Beau comme le soleil”. Phoebus sings of his plight being “Déchiré” between two women. And in “Belle”, one of the musical’s most famous songs, Frollo, Phoebus and Quasimodo sing in turn and then together about their love for Esmeralda and why that love is impossible.

When Notre Dame de Paris premiered in London in 2000, it received scathing reviews, most comparing it unfavourably to Les Misérables. Nevertheless, the show played for 17 months. What did not occur to the British critics is that director Gilles Maheu may have intentionally worked to differentiate Notre Dame from Les Mis as much as possible. Notre Dame is sometimes called a “rock opera”. In fact, it is much more like Jesus Christ Superstar which is a rock oratorio, a point that Maheu emphasizes all through his staging. The original production of Les Mis took a realist approach and played as if behind an invisible fourth wall. The 25th anniversary production Les Mis makes attempts at even greater realism. In contrast, Notre Dame does not aim at a realist presentation and constantly emphasizes its own nature as theatre. After all, it calls itself quite accurately a “spectacle musicale”.

The performers in Notre Dame tend not to face each other but to sing facing forward directly to the audience. If we consider Notre Dame a traditional musical, that would count as a flaw. If it is considered as an oratorio, such staging is standard practice. Songs about the geometrical nature of the plot, like those mentioned above, are quite unusual in a musical because they make the audience aware of the play’s structure. In “Beau comme le soleil” and “Belle” the characters on stage are not in each other’s presence but sing together to illustrate that that have the same feelings.

The show’s political element is also aimed directly at the audience. The dancers representing not just the Roma of the novel but refugees and the homeless deliberately relate the suffering of these people in 1482 to that of like people in our present. It therefore makes complete sense that Clopin, their leader, should sing directly to us, pleading to us on their behalf. It is a tribute to Plamondon and Maheu’s pessimistic foresight that the plight of the “sans-papiers” depicted in 1998 should only become more relevant in 2022.

Maheu’s choice of design also consciously moves the show out of its medieval context to a contemporary one. Maheu has not chosen forehead mics that can be hidden in wigs to make the cast look more natural. Rather he has them wear headset mics so that the amplification process is obvious. Caroline Van Assche’s costumes show the outcasts in beggars’ rags. Beggars’ rags tend to look similar throughout the centuries, but if we look closer we see that the men are really wearing distressed jeans, T-shirts and sneakers and the women dresses with irregular neck- and hemlines. It is only the holey blankets they wear like serapes that give their outline a medieval look. This is true even of Gringoire. He sports the same, though less soiled, uniform that the outcasts do, but wears a sky-blue robe that distinguishes him as a poet. And so it is with Frollo’s cassock or Phoebus’s chainmail shirt.

Consonant with the show’s emphasis on its own theatricality and thereby its rejection of realistic staging is Maheu’s heavy use of choreography. Nearly half of all the songs are accompanied by dance, and not dance that attempts to reflect the Middle Ages, but contemporary dance. Martino Müller’s choreography for the outcasts when we first meet them seems chaotic – full of whirling, leaping, diving, rolling. This is because Müller has given individualized movements to each of the dancers so that we don’t look at them as a homogenous group but as a collection of individuals. Later, however, when the outcasts mount a siege on the cathedral, their actions are tightly coordinated.

Müller’s choreography generally reflects the mood or meaning of a song. When the dancers are part of one of the great mass events – such as in the scenes “La Fête des fous”,“La Cour des miracles” or “Libérés” – Müller augments his troupe of 17 dancers with five acrobats and two breakdancers. Then the mood of show clearly shifts beyond the traditional musical into circus. Even in Quasimodo’s ode to the bells he rings, “Cloches”, sees three huge bells descend with acrobats hanging from bars inside like human clappers. Maheu’s and Müller’s notion is to show how the bells are alive to Quasimodo.

From the point of view of 2022 Maheu’s direction still has not dated because it was ahead of its time. While the structure of Notre Dame de Paris as a rock oratorio was likely influence by Jesus Christ Superstar, there is an irony that the 50th anniversary production of Jesus Christ Superstar seems to be heavily influenced by Notre Dame de Paris in adding modern dance to almost every song, using modern dress with ancient silhouettes, employing visible mics and emphasizing theatricality over realism.

There is little to discuss about the seven soloists except that they are well cast, they all have powerful voices and they are evenly matched. Unlike most musicals, most of the seven already had recording careers before joining the cast, most notably Daniel Lavoie and Bruno Pelletier (who sings Gringoire in select performances). As is the case with oratorios, acting is not required for the roles. The drama is in the music.

Four of the seven do not portray complex characters. As Gringoire the narrator and commentator, Italian singer Gian Marco Schiaretti merely has to project nobility of mind and insight into the events he conjures up for us. Schiaretti is fully up to the task. As Phoebus, the Québécois Martin Giroux successfully embodies the superficial élan but internal shallowness of his character. As Phoebus’s fiancée Fleur-de-Lys, Québécoise Emma Lépine shows that her character’s naïveté makes her the ideal companion for Phoebus, rather than the far more profound Esmeralda. Clopin’s role is to introduce the outcasts and repeatedly rally them to celebrate or to fight. The French singer known only as Jay (birth name Johan Legiel) lends Clopin a moral stature far above that of his enemy Frollo.

The three characters who take a more complex inner journey are Frollo, Esmeralda and Quasimodo. Famed Franco-Manitoban singer Daniel Lavoie, who sang Frollo in Toronto in 1999, wonderfully summons up all of Frollo’s conflicting emotions, from desire for Esmeralda, to hatred of himself for his desire in “Être prêtre et aimer une femme” to a hatred of Esmeralda contrived to cover up his desire. Albanian Elhaida Dani uses her lush voice to depict Esmeralda’s journey from unself-conscious sensuousness in “Bohémienne” to love (for Phoebus), pity (for Quasimodo) and hatred (of Frollo). Dani brings great sensitivity to Esmeralda’s “Ave Maria païen” and extraordinary power to the anthem “Vivre”.

As Quasimodo, Italian Angelo Del Vecchio has to face comparison with the Canadian Garou (birth name Pierre Garand) who originated the role. Garou’s rough voice that suggested damaged vocal cords was ideal for the role of Quasimodo, an outwardly damaged human being with a pure heart. Del Vecchio has a strong, rich voice that he feels he needs to roughen to imitate Garou. This isn’t necessary because the contrast between Del Vecchio’s smooth voice and his character’s damaged exterior would still express the inherent contrast in the character. Del Vecchio sings all his songs with great sensitivity and attention to the text.

It should be no secret that the reason for Notre Dame’s success is the fantastic score by Richard Cocciante in which one impressive melody follows on another. Many classic musicals survive because they feature one or two hit songs. The score for Notre Dame has more than 50 numbers and Cocciante’s melodic imagination never falters once. It’s an amazing feat no contemporary musical can touch.

The great pity in the show’s performance at the National Arts Centre was that the sound equipment was not first rate and the volume was turned up so high as to be uncomfortable. The energy produced in music theatre should come from the performers’ voices not from the amplification. Furthermore, turning the volume to high and leaving it there ensures that the music will become wearying on the ear, not invigorating as it should be. Beside that, the NAC sound system in Southam Hall did not produce a clear, clean sound. The music, especially when involving several voices, became fuzzy to downright muddy – all a terrible insult to the work and its performers. Let’s hope that when this production travels to Montreal that the sound technicians will be more sensible and the equipment of a higher grade.

Meanwhile, the 25th anniversary tour will start on November 15, 2023, in Paris. For anyone who has never seen this landmark work with its groundbreaking direction, look for the itinerary and do try to see it if you possibly can.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: “Cloches”; Gian Marco Schiaretti as Gringoire; Daniel Lavoie as Frollo; Jay as Clopin on girder with the ensemble; Angelo Del Vecchio as Quasimodo and Elhaida Dani as Esmeralda.  © 2022 Alessandro Dobici.

For tickets visit nac-cna.ca or placedesarts.com.