Most readers have probably heard about the staging of Noli Me Tangere: The Opera at the Newport Theater in the last few weeks. Noli Me Tangere, consi-dered as Jose Rizal’s most genius work, portrays the protracted struggle of Filipinos against Spanish rule and the social inequalities of the 1800’s.
Noli Me Tangere’s original music was composed by Felipe de Leon and its libretto by Guillermo Tolentino who are both National Artists. First staged in 1957, the opera was only produced again in 1987 at the CCP, most likely to a select audience.
In the 1990s, it was briefly performed at the University of the Philippines and then again, only now in 2014. This year’s Noli opera is produced by Loida Nicolas-Lewis, a patron of Philippine arts.
In her opening salvo, she cites how unfortunate it has been that this opera first gained inter-national recognition only after it was performed in Chicago and New York. Nonetheless, the noble attempt to finally bring back Noli to its rightful audience is quite admirable and perhaps timely.
As Lewis pointed out, given the recent economic progress, or subtly the increase in purchasing power of many Filipinos, the opera could be better appreciated at this crossroads. And rightfully, the opera opened with much aplomb and with wider reach.
To be honest, I hesitated writing about the opera as I am neither an art critic nor a musical expert. It is often difficult to the untrained ear to tell whether notes were good or off. But to the naïve audience like myself, one could still tell how taxing on the performers’ vocals and de-manding the artistry of the entire libretto was. The classical har-mony reminds us of how opera differs from pop music with its complexity and range, as the sopranos and tenors onstage sang what seemed like four octaves in an aria.
In operas, the audience is made to realize the discipline one needs for vocal talent; and in Noli, such vocal prowess was very much heard.
As many have written in reviews, Noli’s production and stage design by Jerry Sibal were certainly well executed as digital images captured scene after scene of what life must have looked like in the late 1800s. Detail on both set and costume designs were evident, effectively depicting the opulence of the lives of the illustrados versus the indios during the Spanish colonial era. It was an ultimate step back in the time of colonial Philippines.
It was curious an experience in fact, for the teens in our family to sit through an entire opera for the first time. Far from the often dramatic and pop feel of Broadway and West End productions, Noli required its viewers to listen intently to the lyrics as not one word was uttered in dialogue but in song.
For the First Act, it was a struggle to keep our attention in place as the libretto was written in almost archaic vernacular—words which we barely encounter these days. The first act also required us to recall a bit of Noli from decades when we last read it back in high school and in university.
As the characters took to the stage one by one, and as the plot unfolded, our recollections of Rizal’s novel came back as scenes progressed. Yet as expected, it was Sisa’s aria that captured the audience’s notice the most.
By the Second act though, the perfor–mances of the characters of Padre Damaso, Basilio and the duets of Maria Clara and Ibarra gave the opera a renewed spirit.
It is almost ironic that you develop a better understanding of Rizal’s works as you get older, decades after you had first been required to learn about it in Rizal courses. I guess there is a certain social-political maturity that you need to truly grasp the undertones of Rizal’s novels. But if the opera is one way of reawakening a sense of patriotism and history, then the opera Noli must be something we all should see.