Tag Archives: review

Love and Loss in Rendition — Dulaang UP’s Noli Me Tangere: The Opera in review

4 Jan

Photo from the Dulaang UP's Noli Facebook page.

Since its publication in 1887, the novel Noli Me Tangere by national hero Jose Rizal continues to reinforce itself as a tour de force in the local literary tradition. Its story revolves around the lives of townsfolk from San Diego, a fictional Philippine municipality at the turn of the 19th century. Rizal’s central characters, who have made their mark in the national consciousness, are Crisostomo Ibarra – a gentleman who leaves for Europe in his youth to study and returns toSan Diego an orphan – and his childhood sweetheart Maria Clara, the illegitimate daughter of the abusive clergyman Padre Damaso.

The novel and its sequel El Filibusterismo are credited for inspiring Filipino revolutionaries to take up arms against the Spanish colonization. Due to its artistic and historical significance, both texts lend themselves well to adaptation in other art forms, particularly the performing arts. In reworking Rizal’s novels for the stage or for the screen, directors and screenwriters have followed one of three traditions: faithful adaptation, vignette and contemporaneity.

Renditions like Gantimpala theater troupe’s Noli and Fili, which most high school students in Metro Manila are required to watch, are more literal in their adaptation. The same can also be said of the 1992 TV series Noli Me Tangere, a project of the CulturalCenter of the Philippines (CCP) which aired for a total of 13 episodes. The scripts of all three productions fed extensively on passages from the novels, and neither the chronology nor the characters were tailored or modified to suit the director’s vision.

A number of directors, artists and writers saw potential in the “untold stories” of Rizal’s dynamic, multi-layered characters and went on to employ their artistic license in the plots and presentations of their own productions. In his 1951 film Sisa, starring Anita Linda in the titular role, director Gerardo de Leon played around with the Noli’s plot and male characters to create a past for and explore the psyche of the iconic madwoman ofSan Diego, whose family misfortunes ultimately drove her to insanity.

This vignette tradition is especially strong for the novels’ female characters – particularly Maria Clara; Salome, the lover of Elias; and Sisa. All three women were the subjects of Kutsilyo, Pamaypay at Yantok, a play in three acts which alternately parodied, magnified and dramatized their relationships with the men in their lives.

Meanwhile, recent productions like Philippine Educational Theater Association’s Noli at Fili Dekada Dos Mil – written by Nicanor Tiongson and directed by Soxie Topacio – allow audiences to review and appreciate the national hero’s classic masterpieces in the light of current socio-political realities. This was achieved by adding contemporary tweaks to the plot and “relocating” the novels’ characters to present-day, poverty-strickenManila.

The latest Noli adaptation to have graced the thespic scene is Dulaang UP’s Noli Me Tangere: The Opera. Composed by National Artist for Music Felipe de Leon alongside librettist Guillermo Tolentino, the production debuted in 1957. The DUP restaging ran from November 16 to December 4, 2011 to coincide with the yearlong celebration of Rizal’s sesquicentennial birth anniversary and to prelude the centennial of de Leon’s birth. The premiere staging of de Leon’s masterpiece was well-received, garnering the distinction of being “the first truly Filipino opera.”

In order to effectively evaluate the success of DUP’s adaptation, it is important to note the components and traits of a good opera performance. The art of the opera harks back to 16th centuryItaly, where it was initially performed for the nobility. For centuries, opera has been regarded a “high” or even “elitist” art form.

An opera is essentially a story set to music, rendering both the vocal and accompaniment elements of music are of paramount importance. The score of Noli Me Tangere: The Opera is laudable for employing rich, local musical traditions such as the kundiman (Maria Clara’s “Kay Tamis ng Buhay”) alongside the standard aria of Western operas (Sisa’s “Awit ng Gabi”).

The score was bolstered by excellent showings from the ensemble – composed of both veteran and burgeoning opera singers – with the guidance of musical director Camille Lopez Molina. Standouts include soprano Myramae Meneses and contralto Jean Judith Javier, who played Maria Clara and Sisa, respectively. Even the child actors Gerald Kristof Diola and Jhiz Deocareza, who essayed the roles of Basilio and Crispin, delivered strong theatrical and musical performances.

The ingenious and indigenous set design heightened the impact of local color in DUP’s production. Production designer Gino Gonzales used bamboo for partitions, risers and walkways onstage; inabel cloth from Ilocos was also incorporated in the period costumes.

One thing that didn’t strike a chord with me, however, was the use of stark-white face make-up to identify and highlight the Spanish characters. The over-application of make-up was characteristic of Doña Victorina in the original text, as in the more literal adaptations. Having the friars, Don Tiburcio and even Maria Clara’s suitor Ynares don the same look was an unnecessary distraction from the pretentious donya, whose largely unsuccessful attempts at speaking and looking Spanish was meant to bring comic relief to the narrative.

It is interesting to note that Rizal himself received flak for writing his novels in Spanish, the language of the educated and the elite. This move, said his critics, rendered the texts far removed from the masses who he was supposedly writing for. However, this appears to have been a case of misguided audience attribution.

His choice of language had an intended cause and effect: writing in the language of the colonizers was his own way of disproving the ignorance and indolence that offensive Spaniards were only too willing to attribute to Filipinos. Rizal, then, wasn’t directly writing for the masses; his deliberate use of Spanish could well be construed as the epitome of the phrase “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Operas are characterized by their high propensity for tragedy and melodrama; most plots revolve around central characters’ personal crises and how they manage (but more often, fail to) overcome them. The internal and external conflicts of characters in Noli and Fili reflected the hardships and struggles that Filipinos of yesteryears were subjected to. Their stories brought to fore the socio-political situation of Rizal’s time – not the other way around.

In the opera, important scenes and characters in the novel were reduced – if not completely scrapped – because the plot’s historical context played second fiddle to the romance of Maria Clara and Crisostomo. Scenes involving the star-crossed lovers – among them their reunion at Kapitan Tiyago’s dinner feast and their forlorn farewell in Maria Clara’s room – were expanded, and even fitted with corresponding musical numbers.

By contrast, only two minor scenes involving Elias, the demoralized revolutionary who sacrificed his life for Crisostomo, were included in the opera: the first when he kills the crocodile along the Pasig river, and the second when he helps Crisostomo escape from Spanish authorities.

The iconic confrontation between Elias and Crisostomo on the merits of staging a revolution versus investing in the youth’s education is markedly absent from the score. Also among the bypassed scenes was the maltreatment of the deranged Sisa by Doña Consolacion – the foul-mouthed, whip-wielding Filipina wife of the Spanish lieutenant.

While the DUP restaging of de Leon’s Noli remained faithful to its operatic medium, I felt that it did so at the expense of the source texts’ treatise. Elements and themes central to the narrative of Noli were lost in its transposition from the page to the stage.

The tone of desolation on both the individual and social levels was not lost, but the focus on the tragic love story betrayed the opera’s inclination to melodrama and clearly delineated from the more historical milieu of the novel. This is not to say, however, that the production is faulty for yielding to the performance medium. Rather, DUP’s Noli Me Tangere: The Opera is a testament to the breadth of the Filipino artists’ aesthetic wingspan, establishing itself as an adaptation both inspired and instructive.

Out of the Ashes and into the Light*

2 Mar

Ashes of Time (Dung che sai duk), 1994

Contentment, hope and good intentions – the personas in Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time are filled with anything else but. Their lives converge in drought-ridden ancient China, with “problem-solver” Oeyung Feng as the anchoring character. Feng, himself a skilled warrior, is in the business of contract killing and hires traveling swordsmen to execute his bloody tasks. Owing to its reflective theme and extensive presentation of martial arts, the film has been classified under both the drama and wuxia or Chinese martial arts genre.

Most of the plot is set in a desert, a fitting locale for people with motives and varying degrees of desperation to meet or compete for survival. By situating action in a place bereft of resources, the director makes it easier for viewers to make sense of the responsibilities that characters take on, as well as those they choose to leave behind. Though a desert is typically arid and scathing, the color palette is vibrant and inviting, making the background look almost like it was painted on.

The manipulation of narrative elements is well played out in the film. Its opening sequence features a desert, an eclipse, a turbulent ocean and close-up shots of Oeyung Feng and his friend Huang Yaoshi battling it out in their younger years. Wong incites the viewer to juxtapose the two men from the very start, because their approaches to the film’s theme will turn out to be radically different. Each of the plot’s four chapters is attributed to a particular season, but the warped temporal order is made manifest by flashbacks and disrupted chronology.

As far as the plot is concerned, Ashes of Time commences in the spring. The narration is told mostly from Feng’s point of view, but a number of scenes mark the transfer of mental subjectivity to the Blind Swordsman, Huang Yaoshi, and Murong Yin/Yang. Brigitte Lin skillfully shifts from flighty to intense throughout the chapter; her costume and makeup are essential for the viewer to differentiate her characters. When Lin dresses as Murong Yang but begins to speak from the point-of-view of Murong Yin, it becomes clear that they are two personas in one love-crazed person. The director also toys with lights, shadows and movement to produce space depth; this is best seen during the first few encounters of Feng and Murong Yin, when their faces simultaneously bathed in light and covered by the shadow of the rotating bird cage.

The summer chapter provides answers to the questions raised by the one it succeeds. It is here that the love triangle among the Blind Swordsman, his wife and Huang Yaoshi is confirmed. The Swordsman reveals to Feng that his wife is in love with his best friend, who the viewer knows to be Huang Yaoshi from a flashback in the previous chapter. The deterioration of the Swordsman’s vision is echoed in the score, where periods of noise are accented by abrupt silences. The fresh angle and cinematography of the Swordsman’s death sequence is a mark of directorial ingenuity. During his final moments, his dying scream morphs into the chirping of birds, and his mind’s eye takes him to a faraway resplendent place where Peach Blossom waits. His joy in this return, however imaginary it may be, is reinforced in the final shot, where a hole in the tent – a passage leading to the sky, far away from the forlorn desert – comes into view as darkness fades to light.

The final chapter both concludes and preludes the narrative. In terms of chronology, that particular winter ends where spring in the first chapter takes off. Here, Feng’s past and present is revisited; the viewer is introduced to the woman Feng has fantasized about throughout the film, and his brother who eventually became her husband. Wong shows off maverick editing techniques in the confrontation sequence between the woman and Feng on the eve of her wedding. The volume is turned up but the pitch is hollow and almost hushed, as the two characters’ violent whispers reverberate in the long corridor. The director tinkers with temporal duration as he cuts rapidly from shot to shot, allowing the viewer only stolen glimpses and noises of this tryst, sometimes even leaving the latter in the dark altogether (i.e. when the shots shift to situationers, or footage of static backgrounds).

Ashes of Time employs several patterns and motifs to solidify the themes and emphasize the value of characters. The way women in the film always contrast sharply with the background is an example of such.  The Swordsman’s wife is consistently styled to be unkempt but is always well illuminated. The somber clothes and washed out face of the peasant girl with a basketful of eggs distinguishes from the vivid desert. White-as-snow skin and blood red lips make Feng’s lover stand out against the gray background of White Camel Mountain.

Thematically speaking, all male characters fall prey to displacement of affection. Deprived of love by choice or consequence of duty, they channel their desires to another person or activity – the desire to forget and Murong Yin for Huang Yaoshi; Murong Yin for Feng; the peasant girl for Feng, the Swordsman and to a platonic extent, Hong Qi. The visual emphasis on the female characters highlights this tendency; usually it is the women left behind by their men – Peach Blossom and Feng’s lover – who are illumined, to further the point that they belong to the past and are now out of reach. Similarly, these two women projected their affections elsewhere– Peach Blossom to Huang Yaoshi, and Feng’s lover to his brother – as a coping mechanism, but later found that in so doing, they ultimately jeopardized their own happiness.

Additionally, water is a recurring motif in the film. One way of reading this is to see water as n foil to the parched atmosphere of the desert. But perhaps more than the simple need to quench thirst, water can also come to symbolize the characters’ longing for closure. The viewer sees this many times throughout, including Murong Yin battling her own reflection,  Hong Qi leaving Feng’s abode at the onset of a storm, the meeting of Feng and the blind Swordsman’s wife at a lake, and Feng’s lover reminiscing about her past and looking off into the horizon.

The persistence of memory is also instrumental in the narrative. All the characters are motivated or haunted by their past, but they differ in the way they deal with it. This is where the opening sequence finds its meaning – both Huang Yaoshi and Oeyung Feng struggle with the bitterness of spurned love, but the former preferred to forget, while the latter chose to live a present that could not compete with memory.

In a world where truth and trust are hard to come by, even the seemingly steadfast lose themselves in the struggle. This warranted change in the self was most evident in Hong Qi. “I never cared about the money,” he told Feng, “I thought I’d always be that way. Then that girl asked me for help. And I knew I was a changed man. I turned her down because I knew you would…I don’t want to be like you. Because I know you’d never ever risk your life for an egg.” As he speaks thus, the shadow obscuring half his face gradually turns to light, and Feng would later admit how much envied the man and his wife for being true to their hearts. Sometimes, when confronted with change in ourselves or in others, to run is the best option. To run in this light presents no cowardice, because in moving forward we learn not so much to retreat, but especially to brave running towards.


*This claimer: T’was a review I wrote for film class under Prof. Patrick Campos last sem.