A gift to Filipinos
As far as I know, the “Noli” and “Fili,” nicknames Filipinos have given to the two classic novels by national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, are still required reading among high school and college students in this country.
Thus, many Filipinos must be familiar with the plot, themes, and characters in these novels, although I suppose for a great majority the books were nothing but requirements to plod through and get over with as part of the “Rizal Course.” Which is really a problem because when read in the context of leisure, enjoyment or even earnest nationalism, the “Noli” and “Fili” are rich, satisfying and very, very good reads.
Indeed, I would rank “Noli Me Tangere” as up there among the best Filipino novels ever, in fact THE Great Filipino Novel that speaks to us as Filipinos. It was written in the context of turbulent times, when we were still searching for a national identity and when Filipinos were ready to throw off the shackles of a colonial power. It is also vastly entertaining, a social satire that excoriates the frailes or priestly class who were in essence the true enforcers of Spanish colonial rule and mores, as well as their indio or mestizo vassals, who aped colonial manners, dress and values and whose guiding light were not our native, indigenous culture but that of a foreign land. I found it in parts funny and comical, moving and romantic, touching and tragic, and indeed an inducement to anger and protest.
In that sense, one can read the “Noli” also as a reflection of the conflict that still haunts Filipinos today, still grappling with the push-and-pull of nationalism and love for our own versus a fascination and love for all things foreign, always considered far superior to what is found here.
Thus it was that, leaving the Newport Theater in Resorts World after the gala performance of “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera,” my fervent hope was that the performance would engage Filipinos once more in a deeper appreciation of our culture and history, make them proud of what our ancestors had accomplished.
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There is much hope that this will be accomplished. Loida Nicolas-Lewis, one of the honorary chairs of the committee that brought the opera to our shores, announced before the curtains rose that sponsors, including such corporate behemoths like San Miguel Corp., PLDT, Smart, and One Meralco Foundation had made money available for the producers to invite students from public schools to watch the opera.
Certainly it will be a milestone for these young people—watching an opera, and an opera based on a novel that laid the basis for the nascent nationalist movement and the revolution against Spain.
I must confess that I did not know an opera had been written based on the “Noli.” I was familiar with stage versions of both the “Noli” and “Fili” presented usually by academe-based troupes. But not until the restaging of “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” did I know that a major theatrical production already existed, created by two National Artists: composer Felipe Padilla de Leon, and sculptor Guillermo Tolentino who wrote the lyrics. And that, moreover, Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, who with Irma Potenciano had been honored earlier by the producers, played the role of Sisa in the opera’s world premiere in 1956.
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What an irony that this revival of “Noli Me Tangere: The Opera” was first staged in New York last year, mounted by two brave, perhaps foolhardy, Fil-Ams, Jerry Sibal and Edwin Josue. And what a gift that they, along with Nicolas-Lewis and other arts patrons, decided to bring the opera home, to regale Filipino audiences and reach out to a new generation in search of validation and pride in being Filipino.
Indeed, the staging did all Filipinos proud.
Under the direction of Freddie Santos and musical director Rodel Colmenar conducting the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, the opera moved briskly and sketched the novel’s plot efficiently, enthralling all with moving music, lavish sets, colorful costumes and creative lighting.
I have long been a fan of Rachelle Gerodias, and she brought to the role of Maria Clara a spirit and youthfulness that belied the clichés about her character as a weak-willed lass under the thumb of her parents and “godfather,” the friar Padre Damaso. She was all fine voice and sprightly presence, lending Maria Clara dignity and femininity.
I hadn’t had the pleasure of listening to Sal Malaki as Crisostomo Ibarra as this tenor has been busy with his international commitments. But he brings to Ibarra the necessary gravitas, even as the character grapples with the ignominious death of his father and the resentment and cunning of the duplicitous Padre Damaso.
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Antoni Mendezona was certainly a revelation, earning spontaneous, eager applause at the end of her aria when, as Sisa, she bemoans her fate and expresses her longing to see her two sons once more.
Also outstanding were Andrew Fernando as Padre Damaso and Noel Azcona as Elias, bringing to life familiar characters and imbuing them with both dignity and fire.
My favorite scene in the “Noli” is the picnic by the river, with Rizal waxing poetic and pastoral as he explains how fish sinigang is made, then launching into an action-packed scene as Elias and Ibarra wrestle with a cayman or crocodile.
Unfortunately, this scene is given short shrift in the opera, as the creative team of De Leon and Tolentino focused more on the romance between Ibarra and Maria Clara and the villainy of Padre Damaso. But this is just a personal view, and I am aware that the “Noli” contains far more episodes for thought and reflection than can be included in a stage piece. But overall, I am grateful and hopeful!
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