Opéra Bastille, Paris, France; July 15, 2014

David Mead

Roland Petit's 'Notre Dame de Paris'.  Photo © Paris Opera Ballet / C Leiber

Roland Petit’s ‘Notre Dame de Paris’.
Photo © Paris Opera Ballet / C Leiber

Roland Petit’s “’Notre-Dame de Paris” is one of those ballets you are either going to love or hate with a passion. It’s very much a pared down 1960s telling of Victor Hugo’s story about a gypsy girl who the hunchback-bell ringer at the cathedral tries to save from death. That stripping down and the focus on the four main characters make it easy to follow.

Petit’s ballet is a far cry from the 19th-century ballet versions such as Perrot’s “Esmeralda” and, thankfully, from the 1996 Disney musical film. The choreography is to the point with no soft romantic padding.

The dance is classical, but with a decidedly expressionistic edge, especially that for the corps. Petit uses broad brush strokes to paint the beggars and low-life of Paris. Dressed in Yves Saint-Laurent’s brightly coloured, chic costumes, they act as a vivid and energetic chorus to the main characters, periodically swelling up and filling the stage with movement that includes lots of broad gesture, and lots of use of the hands with arms right angled at the elbow. There was little character in there, but that’s not what they are there for. It is all strikingly modern and very theatrical. Later, their dance becomes darker with menacing hints at bells. At the end, the sense of lynch mob fever was quite disturbing.

Amandine Albisson was full of charm as Esmeralda. Although initially frightened by Quasimodo, she was a strong character who quickly forgot her fears. By the time of the Court of Miracles, there already seemed to be some attachment between her and the hunchback. Her Act II pas de deux with him was wonderfully mischievous and playful, but always with an underlying tenderness. Earlier, her Act I pas de deux with Fabien Révillion as Phoebus was lyrical and littered with softly beautiful arms. Her fast footwork, especially the quick change from turn in to turn out and back again was ultra-precise. At the end, he despair as she accepted her fate and appointment with the noose was vividly realistic.

To dance with one arm held so awkwardly must be incredibly difficult. To do it, and make it look so realistic, so natural must be even more so. And yet, Karl Paquette did just that and more. He may have been dressed in a grey outfit that made him look a bit like a gargoyle, but his Quasimodo was no monster. He was more a man tortured by his outward physical appearance. His love for Esmeralda appeared completely true, as did his joy at being named as King of Fools. Although often portrayed as a simple man, Paquette brought light and shade to the character. Deep down, this was someone fragile and sensitive.

François Alu was decidedly villainous as Frollo, the Archdeacon. A true Machiavellian, his presence stalked the ballet throughout. He gave the impression of someone for who religion might never be far away, but for who what really matters is power: power over the people, power over Esmeralda, and power over life and death. Every moment of every dance, every gesture, every look was filled with meaning. As he was both attracted and repulsed by Esmeralda, he was dramatic indeed.

As Phoebus, Révillion may have looked like a Greek-god, and was certainly technical excellent, but largely came over as rather bland and characterless. The exception was the scene in the tavern, where he was very convincing. In that scene, the prostitutes, with their oversize wigs and huge, bulging breasts, were a hoot.

Designer René Allio provides an outline of the cathedral’s façade against a backdrop that hints at the city’s skyline. His cathedral roof, all skylights through which dancers appear and disappear is clever. Maurice Jarre’s score drives on, is perfectly listenable to, and certainly does the job, but is hardly memorable.

Almost fifty years after it was made, “Notre-Dame” still comes as a breath of fresh air. The ballet has been accused of being light and more like cabaret than ‘high art’. Not so – and what’s wrong with being accessible anyway? I loved it!