Review: 'Noli Me Tangere' opera makes triumphant return to PH

By Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Sep 12 2014 12:46 PM | Updated as of Sep 14 2014 06:38 AM

Tenor Sal Malaki and soprano Rachelle Gerodias lead the cast as Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. Photo by Chamby Soto

MANILA – The opera version of national hero Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere”, which earned raves when it was presented last month in Washington DC, made its successful return to the Philippines at a well-attended Filipiniana gala on Thursday night at Resorts World Manila.

Composed by National Artist Felipe de Leon with libretto by National Artist Guillermo Tolentino, “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” is considered the first Filipino opera composed in the Western operatic tradition when it had its world premiere in 1957.

This particular staging, which is being spearheaded by Filipino-American businesswoman and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis, had its roots in a 2012 production in Chicago that was billed as the opera’s US premiere.

“When I first saw ‘Noli Me Tangere: The Opera’ in Chicago, I was amazed that the Philippines has its own opera composer in the same league as Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner,” Nicolas Lewis said in her welcome speech at the Newport Performing Arts Theater, where the opera will have daily performances (except Mondays) until September 28.

“However, what really struck me while I was watching the production in Chicago was that it was being sung in Tagalog -- not Spanish nor English but in our own national language Filipino. And the opera moved me to tears, pasok sa puso, napakagandang pakinggan. So right then and there I decided it must be presented in New York,” she narrated.

Executive producers Edwin Josue and Jerry Sibal joined in her “vision” and the opera had a three-day, sold-out run at the Kaye Playhouse at New York’s Hunter College in 2013, which even caught the attention of the New York Times.

While the Times reviewer wasn’t impressed, the New York production caught the attention of Dr. Edward Seidel and his Bicolana wife Dr. Lorna Imperial-Seidel, who worked to have the opera staged at the US capital – and at the Kennedy Center at that.

This time the opera was condensed from the full, three-act version staged in New York to just two acts with a running time of a little over two hours. This time the Washington Post gave it a rave review. “The opera overall flowed with passages reminiscent of Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and Wagner under conductor Benjamin Dia’s baton,” it said.

For Nicolas Lewis, the review meant much more than a vindication for what has become her pet project.

“It was time to bring ‘Noli Me Tangere’ back to the Philippines,” she said, noting that the last time it was presented here was 27 years ago.

“Now why dream this almost impossible dream, when we know it does not exist yet, an opera audience in Manila, unlike in New York? Well now is the right time. The Philippines, under the leadership of President Noynoy Aquino, has progressed from being called the sick man of Asia to being heralded the new tiger of Asia. And our GDP growth in the last three years is among the highest in the world. The Philippines is again in the midst of a powerful revolution and now therefore is the best time to have the literature of our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal guide us once again. Now is the best time to show the world that the Filipino artists here in the Philippines are world-class. Now is the best time to present this opera that will make your spirit soar.”

Resorts World’s giant LED screen helps recreate the novel’s turn of the century setting. Photo by Chamby Soto

The Manila staging, it seems, took its cue from the Kennedy Center production, given that this too only has two acts. However, Filipinos, who are more familiar with Rizal’s most famous work, would quickly note the streamlined narrative and set of characters. (Padre Salvi was practically non-existent, for one. Ditto with Dona Victorina.)

The ending also felt rushed. The novel’s main revelation, for instance, that Maria Clara is really the daughter of Padre Damaso was merely mentioned as part of her final scene with Crisostomo Ibarra.

But the main attraction of this production are the performers, led by tenor Sal Malaki as Ibarra, who also starred in the Kennedy Center production and was praised by the Washington Post for his “expressive singing” that sent the opera “soaring.”

Despite appearing in numerous productions with the Los Angeles Opera Company, Malaki said in the program that he really wanted to take on the role of Ibarra. “This is our very own and we can claim this tunay na Filipino – if you listen to the materials used by the composer – they are very Filipino,” he said.

Another member of the Manila cast who also appeared in Washington DC is Fil-Spanish coloratura Antoni Mendezona, who earned a standing ovation on Thursday for her role as Sisa. Her emotional solo “Awit ng Gabi” as she looked for her sons Crispin and Basilio in the woods could well be the musical highlight of the entire opera.

As Padre Damaso, Andrew Fernando was singled out by the New York Times as “one of the strongest soloist” in the 2013 production. Indeed, the baritone showed his full tones and enunciated beautifully such that you’d wish he was given more stage time.

Joining them in Manila is soprano Rachelle Gerodias as Maria Clara, whose solo as she prays to the Virgin Mary was also one of the musical highlights of the show.

Producer Sibal also did the costumes and the set for the opera. He made full use of Resorts World’s giant LED screen, with digital imagery for key sequences such as the riverside picnic that looks like it was straight out of a Manansala painting or the start of the revolt as seen from the large windows of Kapitan Tiago’s mansion.

He also created an attractive proscenium for the sprawling Newport stage using a pattern inspired by wrought-iron details and capiz windows.

Director Freddie Santos, who also did the acclaimed production of “The King and I” for Resorts World Manila, once again showed his mastery of the Newport stage as he was able to move the action and change scenes seamlessly, while at the same time creating haunting and dramatic images that will not be easily forgotten, particularly Sisa’s lament.

While this opera version may not sit well with Rizal purists, there are still plenty of artistic achievements that are indeed laudable and worthy of Filipino pride.

“Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” runs until Sept. 28 at Resorts World Manila.