Jose Rizal’s literary legacy Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) is retold once again in J&S Productions Inc. presentation of the opera penned by National Artist for Sculpture Guillermo Tolentino and performed to the music of National Artist Felipe de Leon in the 60th anniversary staging of Noli Me Tangere, the Opera.
The elements of great drama are all found in Rizal’s story of nineteenth century romance doomed by what he referred to as a “social cancer”. Star crossed lovers Crisostomo Ibarra, who returns to the country to avenge his father’s death, and Maria Clara who represents everything that is beautiful in his world are at the center of this emotionally charged social drama.
Forces from the Spanish run government and church at the time connived to exploit and abuse a people who clung to religion to reassure itself that life is otherwise beautiful. But like the Portrait of Dorian Gray, the life and very being of the Filipino, then known as Indios, was rotting inside for blindly following their self-anointed colonial leaders.
Though not a great piece of opera in terms of its libretto and music, there are aspects of this production that makes it worthwhile viewing. The real sense of “Opera” is not thoroughly felt but because of the persistent urgency of Rizal’s social commentary, it still makes for a good viewing experience.
There are some outstanding works employed in this staging. For example, the minute he enters the stage and makes an utterance, tenor Ronan Ferrer reveals every aspect of Crisostomo Ibarra’s character with relish. He is very good with centering as an actor. It is clear that we are watching an artist who knows how to embrace and embody a character and take charge of bringing it to life. He inhabited the role with ferocious abandon.
Jade Rubis Riccio who played Maria Clara, on the other hand, delivers a heavily damaged character, devastated by her life’s circumstances, with a slight overdose of melodrama. The sad thing is she sings very well but there are points in the performance when we felt that she might crack and end up rendering another take on the Sisa character.
Regrettably, the performances are uneven. Elias, played with an unremitting intensity by actor Greg de Leon, stands out. He knows the dramatic arc of his character very well that he leads the viewers through the road that his character is treading.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the performances of John Andrew Fernandez and Stephanie Anne Aguilar, both playing very crucial roles in Rizal’s incisive portrait of Philippine society in the late nineteenth century. Both ended up delivering performances so wanting in depth and nuance.
Fernandez played Padre Damaso with a complexity that he was able to physicalize but failed to internalize. The result is a grand stare with no meaning to it. Aguilar who played Sisa, though possessing a curiously good singing voice, failed to make us truly feel her maternal nature. Oftentimes, it felt like she was performing in a recital.
Basically, what was missing in the performances is an attitude of Opera. The sense of heightened drama not only in their external or physical tackling of the roles but should be embedded in the texture of their voices and singing. The tension, pain or ecstasy that the characters are feeling and going through at various stages in the storytelling should help in bringing the truth of Rizal’s work to life. The intensity of the material is lost in performances that are more Broadway-ish than Operatic.
The production as a whole is admirable for its noble intention to tell the story in an often visually challenging manner. The scenic and costume design by Jerry Sibal are impressive. Aided by digital technology, the visuals are often interesting. The costumes, though beautifully flashy, could use some sense of everydayness.
John Neil Batalla’s lighting design is aesthetically arresting but needed intensity badly. His often dimly lit stage failed in guiding the telling of the story. Smoldering intensity was needed in a lot of scenes set to area isolation. On film, this kind of approach worked well with Gordon Willis’s photography in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather 1 and 2 but sadly, not on this stage.
However, one visually arresting image on stage is Padre Damaso’s prayer where a gargantuan image of the crucified Jesus Christ is lit behind him. But even this was marred by bad queuing of the lights. The lighting of the scenes are often uncomfortably late or ahead of the scenes to a fault.
The orchestration under the baton of maestro Herminigildo Ranera elevated the performance to sustained viewing. It provided some fluidity to the performance that was often caught unaware with its set changes.
Tolentino’s libretto does not really leave an imprint, intrigue nor does it challenge our minds. De Leon’s music, commendable for some good melodies, does not sum up to a thoroughly staggering piece of Opera.
The story is still very powerful for today’s viewers. This tragedy will forever be a reminder to all generations of Filipinos that oppression happens when we allow it to run our lives. Acknowledged for our resiliency, we should listen and learn from Rizal’s work that the tragic turns in our life as a nation is the result of fear and complacency.
In the end, Jose Rizal’s work is indeed a searing indictment of justice, social injustice at a time of Spanish colonization. His grim vision of the Philippine apocalypse still holds true. That is what art should aspire and stand for—the truth.
About the author: Francis O. Villacorta ,writer-director of the film ‘Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir,’ was a TV Patrol reporter (from 1987 to 1989) and publicist for Warner Bros. He has also written and directed the theater play ‘Juan Luna’ and ‘Pope Francis Funeral’ as well as forthcoming films ‘A Thousand Tears’ and ‘The Spratly Project.’
FRANCIS O. VILLACORTA