Notre-Dame de Paris
The fools' festival.
It is the year of grace 1482, in the Paris of Louis XI, the boundaries of which are Notre-Dame,
the Louvre and the Châtelet (God, King and Justice), citizens and peasants have gathered to celebrate the festival of fools. The person who pulls the funniest faces and best acts the buffoon will be crowned "Fools' pope".
Suddenly there appears a monstrous being who eclipses all the others. Hunchbacked and crippled, he is Quasimodo, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. The man's deformity, however, is not feigned but real. When the crowd catch sight of him, they pause in amazement for a moment and then, cruelly mocking, proclaim him "Fools' pope". The poor cripple, who is confusedly happy to receive this derisory title, is dragged along in a grotesque procession.
But somebody spoils the fun. Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre-Dame, reminds the people
that life is not all pleasure: they must also pray and repent. Ashamed, Quasimodo crouches like a faithful dog al his feet. For it is to this stern and forbidding prelate that he owes his life, the poor cripple having been abandoned immediately after birth and branded for the stake by some old wife who had interpreted his monstrosity as a sign of the devil. But Frollo had taken him in, brought him up and made him the cathedral bell-ringer. Concealed beneath Frollo's mask of cold severity, however, is a soul that has been tormented since the day he first set eyes on a gypsy girl named Esmeralda, who was dancing in front of his cathedral.
The girl now enters - so beautiful that "God would have preferred her to the Virgin". She dances with her body of fire, as in an invitation to love. Beside himself with desire, Frollo orders Quasimodo to abduct Esmeralda and bring her to him.
A den of rogues.
A terrible chase ensues. Quasimodo searches for Esmeralda all over Paris. among the haunts of shadowy beggars, sick people, vagrants, pickpockets, thieves, murderers and miraculously healed rnendicant-cripples, whose kingdom is the night.
Esmeralda escapes from Quasimodo, with the aid of a company of archers led by the handsome captain Phoebus. The gypsy girl's heart is immediately conquered by the good-looking officer. In the meantime Quasimodo is caught and led off to the pillory by the archers, who beat him up while a few loafers look on with amusement. Only Esmeralda is moved by the suffering of this being, whose appearance had at first frightened her. Thrusting her way through the crowd, she brings him water to drink. This simple act of pity, the first that anyone has ever shown him and coming from a girl as beautiful as he is ugly, throws the poor fellow's mind into confusion and changes the
course of his destiny for ever.
Phoebus marches at the head of his archers almost in a parade of love directed at Esmeralda.
Phoebus escorts the gypsy into a tavern frequented by drunken soldiers and prostitutes. Esmeralda soon finds herself in the handsome captain's arms. But the lovers are not alone. In the shadows Frollo, seething with rage and jealousy, watches their amorous games. A prey to these feelings, Frollo stabs Phoebus and flees, leaving Esmeralda in despair. The horse guards lead off the allegedly guilty gypsy girl.
Accused of killing Phoebus, Esmeralda is brought before the judges.
Indicted for dissoluteness, murder and witchcraft, the gypsy Esmeralda is led to the gallows. She is already in the hands of the hangman, when suddenly Quasimodo appears. He has not forgotten the gypsy girl's kindness to him. Shoving the guards aside, he frees Esmeralda and takes her into the cathedral, where the fugitive can benefit from the right to sanctuary. Frollo, despite his anger, is forced to stop the crowd from entering the church. Disappointed by the loss of their victim, the crowd quickly changes its mood and is content to let out cries of joy.
The Notre-Dame bell-tower.
Constantly on guard, Quasimodo makes a tour of his realm to make sure nothing can threaten his beautiful protégée. He gives vent to his joy by swinging from the bell-ropes and ringing a full peal.
Esmeralda and Quasimodo.
Esmeralda appears and tenderly displays her gratitude to the bell-ringer. Though ashamed of his deformed body, Quasimodo plucks up courage and even takes the girl's hand. Blissfully he shows her his refuge. Tired by now, Esmeralda peacefully falls asleep, watched by Quasimodo. Thinking she is safe, he goes off. But the cathedral is also the kingdom of the archdeacon Frollo. Taking advantage of Quasimodo's absence, he begins to torment Esmeralda, who rejects his embraces with disgust. In a delirium of passion, he strikes her, as if to destroy forever this body that resists him.
The nightmare ~ The cathedral attacked.
Justice, however, cannot be challenged for long. An edict of Parliament revokes the right to sanctuary, and the soldiers burst into the cathedral followed by the crowd. As in a nightmare, Quasimodo watches powerless as the soldiers, and dishevelled women like the Furies of antiquity, rush past him. He attempts to halt them by pouring molten lead on them, but in vain. He is submerged by this unequal battle and forced to surrender. Esmeralda is captured.
A long funeral procession conducts Esmeralda to the gallows. This time nothing can prevent the hangman performing his duty. The lovely gypsy girl is by now a lifeless body. And with Esmeralda the sound of the drum that had tormented the archdeacon's nights dies away. All these tragedies were caused by Frollo, and Quasimodo at last understands the man's evil power. He flings himself on the archdeacon and strangles him. The body of the odious priest rolls onto the steps of the gallows, while Quasimodo slowly takes possession of the corpse of the girl he had loved.
(Translated by Rodney Stringer)
Text by Sergio Trombetta
from the programme of the Teatro alla Scala
Opera and Ballet Season 2001/2002