The Hunchback of NotreDame (1998)

Northern Ballet Theatre
Duration 95’
3 Act Ballet for full orchestra, with pre-recorded tape (with the chorus of Opera North,)
Synopsis: Christopher Gable
Choreography: Michael Pink
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting design: Paul Pyant
Studio design: Philip Feeney and Murray Laverick
Original Cast: Amaya Iglesias (Esmeralda), Luc Jacobs (Quasimodo) Omar Gordon (Frollo) Denis Malinkine (Captain Phoebus), Jayne Regan (Fleur de Lys), Jeremy Kerridge (Gringoire)
First performed at the Grand Theatre, Leeds in February 1998 by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, conducted by John Pryce-Jones.
Recorded by the Northern Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Singers from Opera North, with Miranda Bevin (soprano), conducted by John Pryce-Jones, produced on CD by Black Box.

The Hunchback of NotreDame was Feeney’s third full-length ballet for Northern Ballet Theatre and the last during the tenure of Christopher Gable as artistic director. The composition was interrupted by the death of his mother, and, together with the increasing indisposition of Gable, it meant that most of the creation time was condensed into a cauldron of activity between July and October of 1997. It was a pre-email score, and consequently it involved many meetings and presentations throughout that period either in Leeds, York (chez Michael Pink), or in London. Indeed, snatches of music were even played to the choreographer down the telephone! But, perhaps because of these complications, it resulted in a fine collaboration, resulting in many musical issues being determined by stage criteria. An example of this is the powerful theme that closes the ballet was originally the other way round (ie. climbing then falling) and it was Pink who famously suggested inverting it, improving it immeasurably.

On a research trip to Paris before embarking on the score for Hunchback the composer noted that there were only four bells sounding from the NotreDame belfry. Such economy was perfect and made for a great starting point for the ballet. In the same way as the leitmotif in Dracula dominated Feeney’s previous ballet, so the music for Hunchback in a very real sense derives from just four notes. Indeed the ballet starts with two four-note phrases played simultaneously, one and the other, the theme if you like, This short phrase punctuates the entire ballet, almost like a page turning, heralding a new chapter in the ill-fated destiny of Esmeralda, the gypsy girl. The melodic make-up of much of the score is centred around the interval of a fourth, and the ballet closes with the opening phrase played twice monumentally by the entire orchestra.

Although the many characters in the drama do not necessarily have a signature theme, they are denoted and distinguished by the orchestral colour that is associated with them. So Captain Phoebus is depicted by a flamboyant trumpet, which is particularly prominent in the fine solo in the first pas de deux, Frollo by the organ and by the trombone, Esmeralda by flute and guitar, and Quasimodo, who is at times articulated by the cello, and naturally by a cacophony of tubular bells. While this scheme is no way rigid, it allows for specific soundworlds to surround characters, which can of course be played together. At the end of Esmeralda’s zingaresque bonfire dance, we can detect Frollo’s voyeuristic presence watching her dance by the dark and ominous low F natural on the trombone. These associations between characters and instruments explain the strange trio in the pas de trois of Act 3 of flute, cello and trombone.

After the overture, an evocative portrayal of the interior magnificence of the cathedral, the opening of Act 1 clearly references the music of the era wherein the story is set, the late fifteenth century. Gradually the music pans out to be not only orchestral but also twentieth century in style. Indeed stylistically Hunchback is broad and eclectic, blending mediaeval, romantic, modernist and post-modernist styles in one creatively regenerated musical esperanto. Of course this is only possible from a late twentieth standpoint, as befitting our channel-hopping cultural zeitgeist, but also it can only be made to work because of the tightness of the musical structure.

The role of vocal music is important in Hunchback; at times the scene is set, and the atmosphere evoked by the sound of distant nuns singing plainchant. Indeed the soundtrack of the late middle ages is entirely associated with the sung word, and is indicative of the dichotomy between church and state. Certainly that dichotomy can be seen in the second act of Hunchback, which opens with four courtly songs illustrating the refined world of Fleur de Lys. The soprano melodic line was pre-recorded and the orchestra plays to a click track in the conductor’s ear. The same technique is used for the monumental choral Sanctus that closes the act. In the fortunate scenario of live choir as in Boston, and a live soloist as in Milwaukee, the click track was mercifully not needed. Certainly the Sanctus is major representation of the remorseless power of the church and is built on a circular phrase of 6 and 5, its lopsided character epitomising the loaded dice of fate against the gypsy girl. It was disappointing that the number of spirals of this circle turned out to be the humdrum number 91; a more portentous ritualistic number would have been better. But then it was pointed out that 91x11 amounts to 1001, which was a much more ritually satisfying number, in a cabalistic sort of way.

The Hunchback of NotreDame has been restaged and performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, and Boston Ballet. Choreographer, Michael Pink has been instrumental in restaging the ballet for these companies and it is thanks to his faith in the production that a new generation of audiences are able to see the work created for Northern Ballet Theatre in the 1990s. For his recent 2010 production of Hunchback for Milwaukee Ballet, played by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Andrews Sill, Pink re-named the work Esmeralda for this newer generation, but the ballet still retained its emotional knockout capacity.