One would think that Noli Me Tangere, the Opera would need no further explanations. After all, Dr. Jose Rizal’s book is firmly etched in history—and in our basic education curriculum. Felipe Padilla de Leon and Guillermo Tolentino’s opera traces its history from its first run in 1974 in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Two more successful iterations followed.“People thought we were crazy,” grinned producer Jerry Sibal of J&S Productions, reminiscing about the initial reaction to their efforts in producing another run.
But for Jerry, the opera is a celebration of Filipino talent and history. “There are no boundaries, there are no limits. This is how we are identified as a great Filipino,” he said, just before the curtain went up.
And so from March 8 to 10, familiar figures graced the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, as Noli Me Tangere came to life once again.
With every retelling comes the pressure to live up to those that came before, and this production rises to the expectation. The sizeable cast of characters led by Nomher Narito Nival’s Crisostomo Ibarra is a veritable explosion of tension and personality. The tangled web of petty rivalries and power struggles laid out in the book were palpable onstage. Nival’s portrayal of the idealistic protagonist was nuanced: his voice brimming with youthful fervor in the beginning before slowly becoming colored with rage. Ronnie Abarquez’s portrayal as the deliciously evil Padre Damaso was surprisingly complex.
Costumes accentuated the brilliant performances. Mia Bolanos, who played Donya Victorina, acknowledges the power the right costume has in elevating one’s performance. “As a theater actor, I feel my character more when I am in costume. Because during rehearsals, wala pa eh ‘no, kasi naka–regular rehearsal clothes lang kami. But as soon as we wear the costume, we really get into the character,” she says.
( Because during rehearsals, we’re only wearing regular rehearsal clothes.)
Perhaps the most modern of adjustments in this run compared to Noli Me Tangere, the Opera’s initial 1974 debut were the LED screens onstage. Projecting moving backgrounds, the screens brought a new dimension to theater that toe the line between distracting, as some backgrounds look pixelated, and truly redefining its limits (like during the scene with the crocodile, as it heightened the tension magnificently).
The crux of Rizal’s work is always in its symbolism, in the gut punch of the unspoken, and the opera paid homage to this in its commentary on class inequality. It was visible in the stark difference between the fabrics: shiny and gauzy for the upper class, dull and muted colors for the lower class. It was felt in the lights—the way that the scenes of the rich people were bathed in a warm, buttery glow while the common people were backlit with harsh colors.
Most of all, commentary was evident in Crisostomo Ibarra. In one scene, Crisostomo was described to be writing figures similar to hieroglyphs on a piece of paper, and was then corrected by Pilosopo Tasyo, “Tagalog, ang wikang ating sarili.”
(Tagalog, the language that is our own).
With this one line, we were presented with our hero’s problem: his privilege blinds him from truly understanding the plight of those he wants to save. This limited scope hindered the opera’s second half from utilizing other revolutionary characters like Elias as majority of the time was spent on Ibarra.
Of known fates
Enter Sisa’s descent to madness and the opera finds the savior of its bogged down second half. The audience watches with bated breath as Bernadette Mamuag steals the show. As she wanders the forest calling out to hersons, the production finally gets all the elements right: the eerie woodland background, Mamuag’s crisp vocals echoing yearning and loneliness, and the bittersweet strains of the orchestra. It’s the defining moment of the entire production and it is done so well that we almost forget that we knew this was coming all along.
Part of the tragedy of Noli Me Tangere is that we all know how it ends. We know that Crisostomo and Maria Clara will never have a happy ending. We know as Crisostomo tenderly sings, “Ako ba’y lilimot?” that Maria Clara will haunt him long after she is gone. As Basilio and Crispin trill with a chilling finality, “Opo, uuwi kami agad,” we know that they will never make it home. Instead of taking the fact that its original source is widely known as detriment, the show wittingly magnifies its emotional impact by playing up scenes like that.
(How can I forget?)
(Yes, we’ll go straight home)
The arc of Noli Me Tangere’s Crisostomo Ibarra from determined dreamer to disgraced fugitive might be taken by some as a pessimistic cautionary tale. After all, there was no riding off into the sunset, no triumphant victory. What then, will these old ghosts leave behind long after their haunting is done? Nomher Narito Nival offers his insight: “Kung nakita ninyo kanina ‘yung nangyari sa dulo, lumabas pa rin si Crisostomo Ibarrana dala-dala ang lampara. [At] ‘yung lampara ay sumasagisag ng?”he trails off.
(If you noticed earlier in the end, Crisostomo Ibarra still went out with a lantern in his hand. And what does a lantern symbolize?)
Hope. With every retelling of this fabled story, we hail the resiliency of those who came before us and we remind ourselves of the causes worth standing up for.
Both timely and timeless, it is hard to imagine the day that Noli Me Tangere, the Opera will not be relevant or meaningful.