MANILA -- This is already the third time I am watching this, the Philippines' first full-length opera first produced on stage in 1957. Jose Rizal's 1887 revolutionary classic novel “Noli Me Tangere” was transposed into opera form, with music by National Artist Felipe Padilla De Leon and libretto by National Artist Guillermo Tolentino. The first time, I watched it in University of the Philippines-Diliman back in 2012. Then, I was also able to watch a new production in Resorts World Manila in 2014.
This year, after being performed in New York and Washington DC by J&S Productions Inc. (producers Edwin Josue and Jerry Sibal), "Noli Me Tangere, the Opera" returns to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) at the main Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, just in time for the CCP's 50th anniversary.
All Filipinos should know the story by heart -- of Crisostomo Ibarra coming home after a 7-year sojourn in Europe to build a school in honor of his father and marry his beloved Maria Clara, only to clash with the vile machinations of Padre Damaso to thwart all his well-laid plans. Act 1 covered the events from the arrival of Ibarra up to the part when Ibarra attacks Padre Damaso with a knife. After the 15-minute intermission, Act 2 covered the events following the excommunication of Ibarra to the deaths of Sisa and Elias.
The libretto was in grand poetic Filipino. Most of the dialog were sung-through opera style, with very occasional spoken lines. The lyrics (with English translations) were projected on supertitles above the proscenium to help us understand the words better. This device was of course limited when the songs were sung by duets or trios, when characters were singing different lines in simultaneous counterpoints. (But ironically, those are the times we need to see the lyrics more.) Since we can all see the lyrics, it was impressive that I did not notice anyone flub their lines throughout the show.
During the preview night when we watched, the central couple of Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara were played by Nomher U. Nival and Nerissa de Juan. From the excellent singing of the whole cast, Nival and de Juan really stood out with their very strong and solid operatic singing voices. Nival's tenor was full and soaring in his many powerful solos. De Juan's dramatic soprano was beautifully flawless in arias like "Kay Tamis ng Buhay." Ivan Nery (whom I saw as Ibarra the previous two times I had seen this show) and Bianca Lopez (coloratura soprano soloist from the Philippine Madrigal Singers) alternate in these roles.
As with the previous times I've seen this opera, the crowd favorites were the tragic characters of Sisa and her two children Basilio and Crispin. This night, Sisa was played by Bernadette Mamauag who had the physical fragility and the acrobatic vocal ability required by this role, especially with her featured aria "Awit ng Gabi ni Sisa."
Basilio's plaintive solo "Gising Na, O Inang Ko" is always the most tear-jerking number as ever, as sung by Mari Yapjoco. (Award-winning stage and film actor Noel Comia, Jr. alternates as Basilio, so that should also be something to watch out for.) Cute little Santino Juan Santiago played the ill-fated younger brother Crispin.
Other vocal stand-outs in the cast were the powerful baritone Ronaldo Villaruel Abarquez as the sinister and depraved Padre Damaso, the smiling Miguel Espiritu as the affable Kapitan Tiago, the classy Krissan Manikan-Tan as the delightfully old-fashioned Tiya Isabel and the lovely Rare Jireh Yzel Columna as Victoria, the subject of a happy battle of the sexes during the outdoor picnic. (Abarquez alternates as both Padre Damaso or Kapitan Tiago in selected shows.)
The other members of the cast were: Joseleo Logdat (Elias); Greg Abelardo de Leon (Pilosopo Tasyo); Mia Bolanos (Dona Victorina), Oliver Pineda (Tenyente Guevarra), Jose Mari Javato (Padre Salvi), Charina Althea Balmores (Sinang), Micah David J. Galang (Andeng), Tomas Virtucio (Albino),Timothy Racho (Alferez), Ruzzel Clemeno (Don Filipo), Lorenz Edward Sarrondo (Linares), and Renz Nathaniel Cruz (Ang Manlilibing).
The ensemble includes Roxanne Abuel, Neomi Giron, Eden Lorrice Dumlao, Sheila Gamo, Mavel Bautista, Cris Go, Krystl Buesa, Katrine Jamar Sunga, Angeli Benipayo, Elle Tuason, Erielle Fornes, Via Villasin, Marifel Motilla, Airo Saret, Kevin Chen, Michael Del Rosario, Charlene Ramos, and Otepp Billeza.
This 2019 production is co-directed by Jerry Sibal and Jose Jeffrey Camanag. The live orchestra is led by Maestro Herminigildo Ranera. Sibal himself did the set and co-designed the costumes with Albert Figueras. Those Filipiniana gowns worn by Maria Clara and Tia Isabel were magnficent, no expense was spared in their execution. Dennis Marasigan did the lighting design, while TJ Ramos did the sound engineering and the microphones were all working perfectly.
Alan dela Rama was responsible for the graphic and video designs on the huge LED walls which serve as scenic backdrops for the play. We were brought inside the opulent living room of Kapitan Tiago's house with the grand chandelier and into the gardens outside bedecked with bright pink bougainvillea blooms.
During the scenes of the picnic, the sky turned from the orange of sunrise to bright blue of midday. The struggle with the crocodile was depicted by video. The interior of Maria Clara's room was represented with capiz windows. We see Padre Damaso in anguish in darkened cloisters with a giant crucifix hanging behind him. The effect of the final conflagration was also achieved on these walls.
The rich music and libretto of this opera had already endured more than 60 years, and we can certainly hear why. Given the proper attitude and guidance, the younger generations can still very much connect with the story. Given the tweaks of modern technology, the show can still appeal to all ages with a current sense of cultural aesthetics.
It was very heartening to see and hear a very deep pool of young talent when it comes to classical singing. Watching this show, I can foresee a very brilliant future for opera singing in our country.
"Noli Me Tangere, the Opera" runs at the Tanghalang Nicolas Aberlardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines until March 10 only.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."