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(Foreground) Andrew Fernando plays Padre Damaso;
(Middle ground) Sal Malaki, Crisostomo Ibarra.
Photo: Oliver Oliveros

By Vince Layson Vicentuan

Old is for the Young, too.

Manila, Philippines--So how do you sell a show that was conceived and first staged more than 50 years ago--an opera at that--to a younger audience who probably haven't even heard of Verdi, Puccini, or Maria Callas? The much-awaited return of the Filipino stage classic seems to be tackling just that.

Timeless Story: Finding relevance in an old piece in an age when people's attention to substance has been glossed over by shock value, hype, and superficial what-nots is as daunting as reading the novel itself in a classroom of students who would rather text than be mesmerized by Jose Rizal's text. On stage, the story of a rich indio, Crisostomo Ibarra (played by Los Angeles-trained Sal Malaki), who has received great education in the burgeoning Europe in the hope of building a school to educate his poor countrymen, seems to be moving naturally on its own without the help of any theatrical spectacle or technical aid. The protagonist's cry for government reforms and criticism of the Church's corruptive friars resounds as freshly as today's issues of stolen public funds and unconstitutional DAP and PDAF. The hero's romantic pursuits with Maria Clara (played by Rachelle Gerodias) can still compete with today's melodramatic plots, which, if one looks closely, has taken on a metaphorical birth: one that speaks of one's love for a country that is being snatched away and torn apart by injustice and poverty.

Opera Music: Opera is not a Philippine invention. Its roots can be traced to 17th-century Italy when Italian literature had declined and its sister art, musical science, had taken the center stage of human creative expression. NOLI does not pretend to be an original Italian masterpiece, or worse, a copycat. Instead, it acknowledges itself as a progeny, but with its own distinctly dominant gene: the kundiman. The Filipino lullaby melds beautifully and seamlessly with its Italian counterpart as to a daughter longing for the love of a lost mother (another overused plot in today's local TV). The opus by National Artists Felipe de Leon (music) and Guillermo Tolentino (libretto) is still as effective today as it might have been in the late '50s, a testament to music's storytelling power regardless of genre and period. Yes, students can get lost into a room without One Direction (1D) or that twerking diva, and come out shrieking, "The best show ever!"

Antoni Mendezona plays Sisa, whose aria, "Awit ng Gabi
ni Sisa," is showstopping. Photo: Oliver Oliveros

Powerful Cast: The cast is a hodgepodge of opera veterans and neophytes, both locally and foreign-trained. On gala night (September 11), it was painful to see such gifted artists challenged by a bad sound system, but whose genuine talents shone through despite such limitation. Malaki and Gerodias's rich tones and dramatic singing help the story move forward; their duet--one of the highlights of the show--can literally break your heart. The real showstopper is Sisa's (played by Antoni Mendezona) aria, a mother's longing and expression of never-ending love for her children, as dark and gut-wrenching as Kurt Weill's Solomon Song. Andrew Fernando's Padre Damaso has the richness of a tenor but lacks the emotional maturity needed for such a complex role, no thanks to his seemingly caricaturish acting. But hey, this is an opera, and Fernando's singing lets him pass with flying colors. Noel Azcona's (Elias) handsome baritone is an ear's delight; and young Eggo Velasco's (Basilio) only musical number holds its own notes against the veterans.The show also boasts a strong ensemble whose mettle has been lent its rightful spotlight, most notably in the picnic scene.

Direction, Sets, and Orchestra: It is not wise to watch a show on its gala night. The third or the fourth performance would be the best. Now I think you know what I'm driving at. Freddie Santos' direction proves to be a brave one. Young as he is, and given such an old material, he could have opted for a much modern re-imagination. Santos' faithful take on the material is more of a homage rather than a personal call. The opera in itself is the challenge, an impregnable libretto and score that limits itself within the period it was created. Stylizing or any attempt at modernizing it would have been a mortal sin on Santos' part. The downside to such faithfulness is the opera's fragmented storytelling. An audience all too familiar with Rizal's novel and its other remarkable characters might squeal, "Ex communicado!" Case in point: Dona Victorina and Pilosopo Tasyo's characters are relegated to the background, their moments on stage weak and negligible. These stock characters could have provided for some comic relief or moments of transcendence, if you may. Jerry Sibal's sets are good to look at except when the LED backdrop overwhelms the audience and upstages the real stars. The orchestra under the baton of Maestro Rodel Colmenar is another show in itself. For those students who have had enough of NOLI, it being a curricular requirement, you have to check out the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra--a showcase of Filipino world-class artistry at its finest.

Premier Filipino soprano Rachelle Gerodias
plays Maria Clara; Sal Malaki, Crisostomo
Ibarra. Photo: Oliver Oliveros

A Must-See: If you're an opera fan, forgive me, but I am not writing for you. You will go anyhow. If you're a student, or a hoi polloi, (Dig that up, kids), this one's a must. If you're into some juvenile adventure, this is even more exhilarating than a zip-line. The well-heeled opera regulars [on gala night] are worthy of a Fashion Police episode. And the sweetest of 'em all is the discounted ticket price at PhP 500 (students only); thanks to Mrs. Loida Nicolas Lewis and friends, who labored ardently just to bring this wonderful production from Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York to where it rightfully belongs.

So how do you sell an opera like NOLI to the young? Stay as stubborn as these youth are. And pretend not to give a hoot.

NOLI ME TANGERE OPERA Manila runs until Sunday, September, 28, at Resorts World Manila's Newport Performing Arts Theater. For student and group tickets, call (632) 634-1720.

About the Author: Vince Vicentuan is currently taking MA in Education, major in Educational Administration at Ateneo de Manila University. He is a theater artist and had worked as the theater manager of Assumpta Theater-CCP of the East in Assumption Antipolo. He has written and directed his own musicals like Sulyap-Lahi, The Wonder Bookshop 1 and 2, and Whose Garden is This?, among others. He has over 12 years of experience as an English teacher and almost 20 years as theater actor. He has appeared in the Philippine productions of Oliver!, Chess, the Musical, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Magic Staff, Dalagang Bukid, and Bakhita the Musical, among others.

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