Millennials cheer De Leon opera

A heart-melting scene of Mari Ferrer Yapjoco as Basilio. Photo by Aldwin Ku.

Metro Manila’s millennials probably had their first taste of Filipino opera Friday afternoon in one of the last performances of Felipe Padilla de Leon’s “Noli Me Tangere” based on the famous novel of Dr. Jose Rizal.

It was easy to see that the young audiences who filled up the orchestra and balcony sections of the CCP main theater were first-timers in the venue the way they gingerly reacted when the theater darkened to reveal the impressive set and costumes of the New York-based Jerry Sibal who debuted as director in this CCP co-production.

The UST Orchestra under conductor Hermie Ranera was in fine form after several performances although there were few instances when they tend to drown the singers.

The opera’s intro about the malignant “social cancer” exposed in Rizal’s time was a revealing one. It got one to reflect that nothing much has changed as rampant corruption has evolved from the colonizers to the colonized.

As it is, corruption actually found new practitioners in the modern day ‘Indios’ with present-day Dona Victorinas flaunting their wealth only to be exposed in senate hearings.

Like it or not, the imagery of the assorted characters in Noli found uncanny counterparts in Rizal’s novel now adapted in the medium of opera.

Dona Victorina could have been scam queen Janet Napoles or a controversial senator with her coterie of alleged lovers. It could have been a billionaire professing love for her country while hosting fundraising balls for a foreign candidate and surreptitiously funding another one in her native soil.

The cast of 'Noli Me Tangere' in prayer before performance. The opera resonates in present-day political scenarios. Photo by Oliver Oliveros.

Padre Damaso being exposed as the real father of Maria Clara could have been any present-day religious figure exposed as keeping assorted mistresses. When a national figure revealed he was a victim of childhood molestation by a man in holy cloth, the poignant aria of Basilio (Sisa’s son) could be easily deconstructed to expose another side of present-day Padre Damasos.

It may be noted that the most hated character in Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” next to Dona Victorina – was the same symbolic figure that caused the conviction of tourist guide Carlos Celdran “for offending religious feelings.”

On September 30, 2010, Celdran carried a placard bearing the word “Damaso” during a mass at the Manila Cathedral denouncing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines which was against the legislation of the Reproductive Health Bill.

Opined baritone Andrew Fernando who played the part in the New York and Resort World productions: “I find the part of Padre Damaso an exciting role. The journey in learning his music and his character has been truly amazing. Both are dramatically and musically challenging. The different nuances of the role are indeed worth exploring. The deeply hated character is a joy and pride to portray.”

The De Leon opera was premiered at the FEU Auditorium in 1957 with the composer at the podium. It was staged at the CCP 1974 with the Ibarra of Don David, the Maria Clara of Ruby Salazar, the Sisa of Fides Cuyugan Asensio and the Padre Damaso of Jimmy Melendres.

Its last CCP production was in 1987 courtesy of Fides Cuyugan Asencio’sMusic Theater Foundation with the Crisostomo Ibarra of Nolyn Cabahug, the Sisa of Asensio (alternating with Luz Morete) and the Maria Clara of Andion Fernandez with the Philippine Philharmonic conducted by Oscar Yatco.

It ran for several weekends in a long running production at UP’s Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero Theater in 2011 and 2012 under the direction of Alexander Cortez.

Tenor Nomher Nival as Crisostomo Ibarra with his Sisa played by Irene Ednave

In 2013, “Noli” had its first New York run at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College in New York with an orchestra under the baton of Michael Dadap and presented by the Foundation for Filipino Artists, Inc led by its chairperson, Loida Nicolas Lewis.

It may be noted that of the major singers in the cast, only baritone Andrew Fernando (as Padre Damaso) was singled out by the New York Times in its review.

The 2014 revival at Resort World had the Maria Clara of sopranos Rachelle Gerodias and Myramae Meneses and the Padre Damaso of distinguished baritones Andrew Fernando and Jonathan Velasco, the Ibarra of tenors Sal Malaki and Ivan Nery and the Sisa of Antoni Mendezona, among others.

What does one make of its latest CCP revival courtesy of JS Productions, Inc.?

Easily the vocal standout was tenor Nomher Nival as Crisostomo Ibarra whose consistent, if, solid ringing tone was reciprocated with a deafening applause during the curtain call followed by a standing ovation.

Vocally, he is the most electrifying Ibarra after Nolyn Cabahug. The way he enunciated the text and making every note count, Nival was a vocal delight even as this opera has no popular aria for the tenor (the opera is known for Kay Tamis Ng Buhay Sa Sariling Bayan sang by Maria Clara and the showstopper, Awit ng Gabi ni Sisa).

The Basilio of Mari Ferrer Yapjoco received equally deafening audience response from the young audiences.

“Kay Tamis ng Buhay” sang by the Maria Clara of Nerissa De Juan was for the most part beautifully delineated.

The Sisa of Irene Ednave was well-acted with some fairly unstable moments. She wrapped up the popular aria with dispatch with some notes a bit off the mark as they went higher.

The rest of the cast did just as well including the Padre Damaso of Greg de Leon, the Elias of Jilbert Chua, the Kapitan Tiago of Ronnie Abarquez and the Tia Isabel of Thea Perez, among others.

'Noli' executive producers Jerry Sibal and Edwin Josue with the composer's son, Felipe de Leon,Jr. The overseas producers believed in timeless appeal of the Filipino opera.

For the most part, imaginative direction is not one of the good qualities of this production. The narrative looked choppy from awkward scene changes and some of the dramatic moments were lost to the audience due to unimaginative blocking.

Dazzling costume designs can shine in fashion shows but in opera, everything should blend and not call attention to itself.

But this production has good plus factors.

It has fairly good marketing and networking which enabled the production to reach out to young audiences.

For another, it gave good jobs and exposure to young talents and musicians. It also promoted the timeless appeal of the opera which has been losing audiences since the new millennium.

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