BWW Review: NOLI ME TANGERE, The Opera Goes For A Grand Staging
Manila, Philippines--60 years after its original run in Manila, "Noli Me Tangere, the Opera" is back for a limited engagement at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Main Hall. The show's producers, Jerry Sibal (also the show's director) and Edwin Josue, Filipinos both based in the United States, are going all out in making this production worth their trip back to the Philippines. The end result feels like a pageant of sorts, composed of a huge ensemble of capable vocalists, a reliable orchestra, and a talented crop of theater artists and designers.
In terms of visuals, this production is going for grand, not only in design but also in scale. Sibal designs the stage and the costumes for the show, and his passion in this art form truly shows in his work. Every time the curtain rises and unveils the next scene, the stage is a feast for the eyes especially with the backdrop (by graphic and video artist Alan dela Rama) adding much to the appeal of the scene. Another achievement in the show is the lighting design by John Neil Batalla. It's unbelievable to see why and how the use of color in a lot of the show's design and art pieces complements the period in which this story takes place. It's like watching an old movie that's currently being remastered to appeal to a younger audience.
Those familiar with Jose Rizal's novel (this writer included) may find this production quite a stretch (three acts and an interval after the second act), plus a few lull moments in between set changes. Because of the amount of edited scenes from the original material, this take on "Noli Me Tangere" becomes less of a social commentary (which was believed to be the original intent of Rizal) and invests more on the challenges of the couple Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. However, for those not very familiar with the story and the characters in the original novel, this version may seem sturdy and sufficient. During the opening gala, the sound was inconsistent. Thankfully, lyrics of the songs and its English translation were being projected in the topmost proscenium.
Garnering much applause during that evening was the 52-piece symphony orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Hermie Ranera. Tackling such a serious subject matter, Felipe de Leon's music "with overflow passages reminiscent of Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and Wagner" is largely responsible for keeping audiences glued to every scene. With de Leon's score and Guillermo Tolentino's lyrics, we were made to understand the depth of Ibarra's indomitable spirit and that of Maria Clara's sad, albeit comfortable, life.
Although performers in an opera are usually singers with a particular vocal technique, the fact remains that they have to immortalize some iconic characters in the novel. The performers in the show are strong vocalists and can convey buckets of emotions while singing their arias, but it's when they're not singing where the three main leads (Ronan Ferrer as Ibarra, John-Andrew Fernandez as Padre Damaso, and Jade Rubis Riccio as Maria Clara) fall short. Ferrer seriously needs guidance in getting into his character. My feeling is that he was overly conscious of his cues (I always see him glancing at the conductor at times when he's supposed to be speaking to a specific person on stage) that, instead of losing himself into his character, Ferrer comes off as a balikbayan confused by the situation he got himself into. Heck, he displayed no sincerity in his affection to his leading lady. Fernandez is another vocal powerhouse whose take on one of Philippine literature's most iconic characters is strangely one-dimensional. Among the three leads, Riccio was the one whom I felt was trying to make her portrayal memorable. But again, with little to no help from Ferrer in their most tender and romantic scenes, she can only do so much.