“Esmeralda” is a reworking of Pink’s ballet, originally staged twelve years ago under the title “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The new title puts the emphasis where it belongs, on the gypsy dancer upon whom all the action centers. The new production is very tight and benefits from technological improvements in areas such as lighting that have occurred over the last decade.
For the Friday/Sunday cast, we were pleased to get Luz San Miguel in the title role. We have appreciated her work in the past, and she did not disappoint. She was well supported by Michael Linsmeyer as Quasimodo, David Hovhannisyan as Archdeacon Frollo, Petr Zahradincek, as the poet Gringoire, and Ryan Martin as Captain Phoebus. The entire company was tight and well-drilled, and lovely to watch.
The ballet opens with the Feast of Fools, a pre-Lenten carnival, wherein the poet Gringoire is attempting to present a street play, but is overpowered by the mob, which prefers more raucous entertainment. Quasimodo, the disfigured bell ringer, is elected King of Fools, or “Fool’s Pope,” due to his grotesque appearance, and carried off on the shoulders of the crowd.
In another square, Esmeralda dances for the people, but is interrupted by a denunciation by Frollo. He, in turn, is interrupted by the entry of the Fool’s procession. Frollo, who is both Quasimodo’s employer and foster-father, berates him and ends his participation in the festival.
Frollo, despite his puritanical ranting, is consumed with lust for Esmeralda, and orders Quasimodo to abduct her for him. The hunchback makes an attempt, but is foiled by Captain Phoebus and the city guard, who arrest him. Esmeralda is attracted to the handsome and dashing Captain, who makes it clear that the feeling is mutual. Esmeralda continues her way home, being stalked by Gringoire, who also lusts after her. Esmeralda lives in the “Court of Miracles”, a rookery of thieves and beggars. Gringoire is captured and condemned to death as a spy when his lack of skills proves he is not one of the brotherhood. Esmeralda takes pity on the feckless man and agrees to save his life by claiming him as a husband. However, she and her dagger soon demonstrate to Gringoire that the marriage is in name only.
Quasimodo is sentenced to be flogged and pilloried. The mob that cheered him as the Fool’s Pope is now happy to jeer and pelt him with refuse. Ever tender-hearted, Esmeralda gives water to the suffering man, and thereby earns his devotion.
In the second act, Phoebus’ well-born fiancée, Fleur (Jennifer Grapes), and her waiting women excitedly anticipate a visit from the Captain, dancing girlishly. When Phoebus appears, they are dressed formally and perform a stately court dance for him. Phoebus makes a grave faux pas by bringing in Esmeralda to entertain the ladies, who are put off by her (relative) half-nakedness and her sinuous and sensual dancing. Phoebus follows Esmeralda when she leaves, and purchases private access to her from Gringoire. Esmeralda is pleased to see Phoebus, and they dance a passionate pas de deux. This ends when the jealous Frollo, who has also bribed his way in, stabs Phoebus from behind. Esmeralda swoons with terror, but the commotion draws attention and Frollo flees, leaving Esmeralda to take the blame for Phoebus’ murder.
After a terrifying night in prison, Esmeralda is taken past the cathedral, where she is snatched out of the street by Quasimodo, and carried into Notre Dame, where the rule of “sanctuary” protects her from the law. As Quasimodo settles Esmeralda in his quarters in the bell tower, her acceptance of his help fills him with joy. Frollo struggles with his lusts, writhing and thrashing like a broken-backed serpent, but finally yields and attempts to rape Esmeralda. Quasimodo once again rescues her, and makes it clear that Frollo has no more power over him. Finding that the sanctuary of the cathedral is false, Esmeralda briefly considers jumping from the tower, but cannot bring herself to do it.
That night, the beggars sneak into the cathedral intending to spirit Esmeralda away to safety, but Quasimodo doesn’t understand this and combats the beggars. Gringoire, under cover of the row, leads Esmeralda away, but sells her into Frollo’s clutches. Frollo attempts to express his passion for her, engaging in a pas de deux that is a twisted parody of Phoebus’ dance with her. Esmeralda expresses only disgust and hatred, and Frollo turns her back over to the hangman. Raging, Quasimodo kills Frollo, but is too late to save Esmeralda from the noose. The curtain falls as he brokenly cradles her lifeless body.
Pink is a master of dynamism in dance. His crowd scenes are always exceptionally well done, and those in “Esmeralda” are no exception. He is also marvelous with small groups of three or four, and excellent with scenes of conflict. The second-act fight scene where Frollo is trying to hang on to Esmeralda, Quasimodo is attempting to shield her, and she is trying to escape both of them, is a marvel to watch.
San Miguel has everything the very demanding role of Esmeralda requires: strength, beauty, and sinuous grace. I was surprised that the role was done in pointe shoes, rather than soft slippers or character shoes as one might have expected, but the choreography which seemed more mid-eastern than “gypsy” worked well for the part. Michael Linsmeyer gave Quasimodo and active energy which seemed refreshingly more like a large and powerful child than like a beast or brute, emphasized in the tantrum he throws when discovering Esmeralda gone from the tower. Hovhannisyan’s Frollo was an almost Nosferatu-like figure, seeming to be almost impossibly tall and lean, with long, pale fingers grasping after his victim. (Makeup did seem to represent some homage to classic horror images: Quasimodo, with his bulging, misshapen skull, scarred cheeks, and fringe of red hair, reminded me of Charles Ogle in the Edison “Frankenstein” film--.)
Costumes were nice enough, rather generic, but generally appropriate, although Esmeralda’s bare midriff would have been quite scandalous in the 1400’s. The set, consisting of steps and pillars that represented the buttresses of the cathedral, plus some mobile pieces used in the street and interior scenes, was cleverly employed and evocative, aided by the very intricate and effective lighting design. Philip Feeney’s score, as presented by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Andrews Sill, was exciting, melodic, romantic, and sinister in the right proportions for a great night at the Ballet.
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