The final show of Richmond Operatic Society’s centenary year was most certainly a production worthy of its place in this illustrious organisation’s hall of fame. From the dramatic opening with the dark-hooded Congregants to the highly charged, death-strewn finale in the bell tower of Paris’s famed cathedral, this production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t pause for breath from start to finish.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, the musical begins as the bells of Notre Dame ring out across fifteenth century-Paris. It tells the story of how Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer comes to be held captive by his devious uncle, the powerful archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, and then finds redemption through the kindness and humanity of the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmerelda.
Despite its association with the popular Disney animation (providing the source for many of the songs), the musical is permeated with the dark tinges of the original novel. It is a story of persecution, the ‘other’ and how society treats its outcasts; and indeed, there are uncomfortable scenes when Quasimodo is attacked by the mob for his deformity (“You don’t belong with normal men”); and Esmerelda is dragged to the stake to burn for witchcraft (“Send the unholy demon back to hell”. The gypsies themselves are barred from the city and their festival – The Day of Fools – is only sanctioned for one day. “Why do you hate us so much?” Who are the real monsters in this piece and where does salvation really lie? These questions and issues are as relevant today as they were when the novel was first written in 1831.
It is a big ask to produce such a mammoth show – with its powerful story and demanding score (many of the lyrics are in Latin) – but ROS more than deliver, with heaps of heart, passion and enthusiasm.
It is blessed with a very strong cast but special mention should go to the vocally-rich Steven Berry for his heart-rendering portrayal of the outcast Quasimodo; Kevin Murray as the tortured and repressed cleric Dom Claude Frollo; and Maia Hughes as the kind-hearted, beautiful gypsy Esmerelda.
Underpinning the main performances are the Congregants, who move seamlessly between playing talking statues and gargoyles, as well as gypsies and citizens of Paris, all the time pushing the narrative along at a fast and furious pace.
It is also a visual delight with clever staging, striking costumes, atmospheric lighting and a big-screen backdrop that follows the action from the high bell tower of the cathedral to the street scenes of Paris and the gypsy hide-out, the Court of Miracles.
The only slight disappointment was the lack of live musical accompaniment that we have previously been treated to at ROS shows but this was offset somewhat by the plethora of lively song and dance numbers, with showstoppers like Out There, Top of the World and Made of Stone.
All in all, this is a show – with bells on! – that sets the bar very high for the next 100 years of Richmond Operatics. Try and get tickets for the final performances if you can. It runs until Saturday 18 November.