For today’s Facebook, app and TV generation, ‘Noli Me Tangere’ The Opera isn’t the show to line up for. Unless the young and connected want to see what their generation is missing, and what the nation has largely lost in the way to the 21st Century.
With 20 performances from the evening gala two nights ago till September 28, ‘Noli’ depicts in music and libretto by two national artists, composer Felipe de Leon and sculptor Guillermo Tolentino, selected scenes from national hero Jose Rizal’s novel on love and oppression in colonial Philippines. In the two-hour saga with Filipino lyrics, English subtitles and 19th century melodies, the lost ideals of patriotism and fidelity are extolled for our age of What’s in It for Me.
Having moved audiences at New York’s Kaye Playhouse a year ago and Washington DC’s Kennedy Center just last month, ‘Noli’ is the opera’s first full-orchestra production in two decades, with veteran director Freddie Santos and conductor Rodel Colmenar at the helm of the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra he founded in 1998. To modernize the material, its original three acts were trimmed to two, with a troupe of 80 singers performing in two alternating groups.
Relentless passion for country
For all its production values, complete with vivid projected scenes, ‘Noli’ may have as much appeal for the “like” and tweet crowd enamored of Hollywood and MTV, as the novel did even for Santos decades ago.
The book “was dismissed with the teenage arrogance of one much more interested in world literature than that ‘local stuff’,” the Aliw Award Hall of Fame honoree recounted in his program message. And when asked to direct the opera months ago, Santos was “daunted — I remembered nothing of Noli except scenes from the 1961 movie.”
Still, the director of countless musicals researched and read English and Filipino translations of Noli originally written in Spanish. “After only five pages … a mere five pages, I was weeping,” he recalled, moved by “the author’s relentless passion for his country, and how, with nary a second thought to courage of consequence, he had to write what was overflowing in his heart.”
In our time of mammoth corruption and lawlessness even in officialdom high and low, in disregard of oath and duty to serve the motherland and uphold the law, the two-hour opera, generously supported by patriotic Filipino-American multi-millionaire and lawyer Loida Nicolas Lewis, showcases in drama and song the love of country so absent today.
In the opening scene, the protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra, back home after seven years in Europe, presents his plan to build a school in his hometown in Laguna. Spanish friars Damaso and Salvi, along with Guardia Civil officers, scoff at Ibarra’s idea. But the Filipino is undaunted in his quest to educate and uplift his people. No pork to grease his drive for edification, but the fire of patriotism.
“Alang-alang sa tinubuang lupa” — for the land of one’s birth, as Santos sums up at the end of his message. And if we find ourselves smirking in amused disdain over Ibarra’s fervor for his colonized country, it only shows what we’ve lost since Independence, which ‘Noli’ powerfully depicts. And what our nation today sorely needs.
‘Not all slept in the dark night’
Obviously, Rizal in the late 19th century did not have today’s abusive and corrupt politicians and police in mind when he wrote about Damaso, Salvi and the Guardia Civil. Neither were these denizens of our time familiar to the 1957 opera collaborators de Leon and Tolentino, the latter best known for the Bonifacio Monument and the University of the Philippines Oblation.
Yet the ills of oppression and sleaze chronicled in novel and opera are no less pernicious then than now. In the most moving and haunting scene, set in a dark forest, the dissheveled Sisa, driven mad when Salvi took her sons away to serve him, laments and cries for her missing Crispin and Basilio, plucking leaves from a branch and throwing them into the air, only to weep over them fallen on the ground.
How many young sons and daughters are lost today, too? Some forced to give up learning and play for begging, sweat work, and petty crime. Others ripped from their mother or father’s embrace by illness, malnutrition, inundating rain or storm surge. And how many Sisas are driven away from their children making a living, often across the sea, or out of their wits to make ends meet with so little. More than half say they cannot, according to surveys.
In the dense jungle Sisa dies in her anguish, later to be joined by the brigand Elias, fatally wounded after rescuing Ibarra from arrest. Amid the tragedy, he speaks the line that stumped Santos when the director read it in the Derbyshire translation, the first English version: “Not all were asleep in the night of our ancestors.”
For Rizal, colonial rule robbed indios of the bright joy of life, the enlightenment of knowledge, and the blazing fire of freedom. But in that oppressive darkness, not everyone slept, as the hero put it. Some like Elias resisted and paid with their lives.
Which poses the question to audiences today: Are we snoring through today’s blackness, or risking censure or worse by speaking up, standing up, rising up?
Finding our way back
The smirking may also emerge in the other great scene ending the abridged opera: the final farewell between Ibarra, fleeing police, and his childhood sweetheart Maria Clara, who will return to convent life rather than marry another. For fans of Sex in the City or Desperate Housewives, loving one’s one and only is plain Jurassic. Play the field, change partners, divorce and remarry. The ideal of one love forever has given way to the dictum of safe sex.
Yet the chuckling at undying, exclusive love, like the scoffing at school-building dreams, only bares the absence of those lofty virtues in our lives and souls today. And it explains our fleeting infatuations as well as our broken nation.
To be sure, an opera written nearly six decades ago based on a 177-year-old novel about 19th Century colonial Laguna may not offer many answers for 21st Century Philippines. But letting the music and poetry of ‘Noli’ touch our souls can impress on us what we’ve lost and why we’re lost. And that’s the first step to find our way back.
(‘Noli’ performances: 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday; 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, at Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World near Villamor Airbase.)