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The Viennese Musical (2)

Thursday, 2 March 2023 , ora 10.18

This is not the first Disney production that the Viennese Vereinigten Bühnen has taken over at the Ronacher Theatre. In 2015, audiences in the Austrian capital were able to enjoy a very beautiful performance of the musical Mary Poppins inspired by the Disney film production. And now, since the lastof October, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a show also copied from the eponymous cartoon film (1996), has been playing on the same stage every day. The music is by the celebrated composer Alan Menken -the composer of the soundtracks of many successful film productions, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Sister Act - and the recipient of several Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony Awards, is also the basis of today's musical.

The story is based on Victor Hugo's novel adapted for the stage by Peter Parnell. The lyrics are from the original songs created for the film by the equally celebrated Stephen Schwartz (Pocahontas, The Prince of Egypt), also an award-winner, and directed by Scott Schwartz, who wrote the American version - the Broadway standard. The artist has gone on to create the show in Germany, Japan and now Vienna. The musical has been playing around the world since 1999.

The story is well known: Quasimodo, an ugly hunchback with a warm and kind heart, grows up hidden from view in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Only Archdeacon Frollo, a high-ranking ecclesiastical figure, knows of his existence and forbids him any contact with the world. Quasimodo's only friends are the gutters of the cathedral roof and the birds that sometimes roost on the towers. But Quasimodo is young, full of life and, not realising that he is not the same as the others, he still comes down from the bell tower to take part in a colourful Feast of Fools. Predictably, the crowd mocks him, and one voice defends him, the voice of Esmeralda, a beautiful gypsy girl who makes a hard living with a troupe of strolling actors. She rescues the hunchback by leading him back to the bell tower to save him. The girl's beauty and kindness deeply impress Quasimodo. But there are two other men who do not remain unmoved by her - young Lieutenant Phoebus and Archdeacon Frollo himself.

Desperate situations bring Quasimodo to extremes where he has to choose between obedience and gratitude to Frollo, the man he considers his saviour, but who turns out to be a wicked, unscrupulous man, a false conqueror and a cruel avenger, and respect and care for Esmeralda, implicitly for Phoebus, the young man the girl loves. The action takes the viewer through the huge interiors of Notre Dame Cathedral, through the bustling streets of Paris, into the gypsy camp...

There is a paragraph in the programme explaining the presence of this word, gypsy, on stage today, when the unanimously imposed "political correctness" no longer accepts it. But this "political correctness" cannot touch a story that takes place in the 15th century and in which the attitude/perception of the inhabitants of the French capital towards gypsies explains a large part of the reactions of the crowd that strongly determine the unfolding of the events. An explanation with which I fully agree and which should protect against extreme false interference in other lyrical theatre masterpieces such as Georges Bizet's Carmen and beyond.

The cast of the Viennese version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is excellent. The roles are heavy and make intense demands on both the acting and vocal components. In the title role, David Jakobs requires real acrobatic skills: he clings to the bell ropes, hobbles along narrow cornices ready to fall into the pit below, leans over gaily marked parapets, oblivious to the enormous hump that endangers him... and all the while he sings and lives intensely a motley tangle of feelings, most of which he doesn't quite understand. Excellent performance by the singing actor! No less fascinating is the development of soprano Abla Alaoui/ Esmeralda who sings and dances with a grace that seems to have come out of 1001 Nights, but at the same time, in extreme situations, shows impressive courage and strength. The girl's voice is also a carrier of strong and diverse feelings, from pity - towards the hunchback - to hatred and contempt - towards Frolo; from revolt - towards the way she is treated by the crowd - to passionate love that can go as far as sacrifice (towards Phoebus).

Andreas Lichtenberger/Frollo masterfully and with aplomb uses all his qualities to portray, vocally and scenically, an odious character, powerful in his boundless malice. Tall, handsome, truly conquering, Dominik Hees/Phoebus is a fine foremost character. I found the development of the Chorverband Österreich (choir) particularly interesting, which in the score is present as an ancient choir. Placed in tiers, in the background of the stage, on superimposed spaces like a real period church ensemble, this choir comments the events. But at certain moments, members of the ensemble break away from the whole and, combining voice and dance, become, as required, flying birds or stolid gargoyles in the strangest positions.

And of this Viennese production of the musical I can say that it is a true SPECTACLE, that the cathedral towers rise majestically overwhelming the stage and then descend just as elegantly giving way to the huge bells that also disappear when the action takes place in the street. The vertical movements - sets and performers - are swift and overwhelming.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a complex story in which lights and shadows clash cruelly and dangerously. With impeccable playing, the Ensemble Stage Orchestra firmly conducted by Michael Römer is ever present, punctuating and supporting the unfolding of the stage action. And the performance, in its entirety, fully deserves the audience's attention and applause.

Night after night, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is performed at the Ronacher Theatre in Vienna, often to a packed house. The auditorium seats 1,000 and seats 40. Prices range from €8 (standing), €80 to €159.

Cristina Sârbu
Translated by Andreea Iulia Ciucã,
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, MTTLC, year I
Corrected by Silvia Petrescu