Like a thunderbolt in a dark and forbidding landscape, the character Sisa burst onto the stage and launched into an unforgettable, heartrending, four-hankie vocal and acting performance that might not be seen again in a long time.
O Inang Bayan na sadlak sa dusa (O Motherland mired in sorrow) raced through my thoughts as I beheld the grief-stricken mother in search of her lost sons, her voice rising from the gloomy depths to the gloomy beyond. She wept, she wailed, but she sustained the great soaring voice until she was reduced to a moan, until life mercifully left her.
What a searing scene. I could only gasp in awe and hold my breath. That electrifying solo performed by coloratura Antoni Mendezona rammed into my soul and shattered it to pieces.
An aside: The whistle-like portion of Mendezona’s Sisa aria reminded me of the popular Queen of the Night aria in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Thanks to National Artist Felipe de Leon, who surely knew the extent of the Filipinos’ vocal prowess and who might have had that in mind when he wrote the music for National Artist Guillermo Tolentino’s libretto.
Before the gala night at the Resorts World Theater last Sept. 11, I thought “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera,” based on Jose Rizal’s subversive novel, would just be among the famous operas staged here every once in a while. Although it had been staged here (and also in the United States) a few times in the past, this latest “Noli” production turned out to be quite unforgettable, at least in my view, because of the purposeful showcasing of the stunning vocal talents of the Filipino singers/actors.
It has to be world-class. Producer, Fil-Am lawyer and philanthropist Loida Nicolas-Lewis, executive producers Jerry Sibal and Edwin Josue of J&S Productions, and honorary chair Boy Abunda made sure we didn’t get anything less. Much has been written about how this opera was brought to life again, here, in the homeland.
Maybe the September anniversary of the imposition (42 years ago) of martial rule had to do with the effect of the “Noli” on me. If we needed something to rouse us into again taking a long, courageous look at our national state of affairs—the greed, the corruption, the impunity of plunderers—the “Noli” might help to stir the dormant fires within. Ah, but I dream.
From what I saw, “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” basically centered on lead characters Crisostomo Ibarra (Sal Malaki), the Europe-schooled intellectual, and Maria Clara (Rachelle Gerodias)—with alternates Ivan Henry and Myramae Meneses, respectively. The star-crossed lovers gave us a glimpse of love in the grip of tyranny.
Through song, Malaki and Gerodias (an international opera star in her own right) carried the story scene after scene after scene. One couldn’t have asked for a better combination of operatic voices that can bring life to any stage anywhere. Thank heavens, Gerodias’ Maria Clara was not the stereotypical ultracoy young woman of that era. Oh, I loved her rendition of Pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa (Love for the motherland). Bravo!
Well, as in most operas, the lovers had to have their love duet, their display of passion. Hmmm, I thought, their singing almost sounded like the soaring duet in “Madama Butterfly,” but minus the climactic part with the cymbals crashing, and you-know-what-happened-next. I was waiting for that. But other earth-moving scenes were yet to come.
But as in stories that come to life in other genres—stage, movies—some things get lost in transition. So this was not exactly the “Noli” that I first read in high school. This was not the “Noli” on the printed page. This was opera, okay? A love story in the grip of tyranny.
There was no band of insurrectos (insurgents) waving bandilang pula (red flags), but it was more than implied. There was Elias, bloodied and articulating the nation’s pent-up rage, there was Ibarra, dumped in prison for sedition. So while I wanted to see more Spanish repression and oppression (personified in the opera by Padre Damaso), which fueled defiance and rage on the part of the Filipino characters, I had to content myself with the thought that the opera could spur the young ones in the audience to turn to the Rizal novels and get revved up for Inang Bayan.
Speaking of the young, the boy Basilio (Eggo Velasco) had his moment on stage as Sisa’s son weeping/singing by his mother’s dead body. I could imagine mothers in the audience sobbing with Basilio. I think of it now…
But just about everyone had a special moment on stage—Elias (Noel Azcona) with his booming baritone, Tia Isabel (Camille Molina, whose performances I’ve always appreciated), Kapitan Tiago (Ronnie Abarquez), Padre Damaso (Andrew Fernando). How I wish I could watch the other cast.
Congratulations to the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Rodel Colmenar and director Freddie R. Santos. Thanks to Carissa Villacorta Songalia for working hard so that many would be able to watch “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera.” (If you know of groups that will appreciate the opera but cannot afford the tickets, please send me e-mail and I might—might—be able to help.)
I just wish the opera ended in a more dramatic and theatrical way. In flames, if I had my way. More than just Ibarra and Maria Clara walking away from each other toward different directions—he to fight, she to pray and stating it clearly and defiantly: us or nothing.
Or was this a way of segueing to the “Fili” (Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo”)? This is wishful thinking. Here’s waiting for Simoun.
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