D.C. presents ‘Noli’ opera; Kirby Asunto not in cast

Sal Malaki and Brittany Palmer as lovers Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara (Photos by Troi Santos)

Sal Malaki and Brittany Palmer as lovers Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara (Photos by Troi Santos)

By Maricar CP Hampton

After it premiered in Chicago and traveled to New York City, “Noli Me Tangere, the Opera” was presented at the Nation’s Capital August 8 and 9 with the original objective of promoting Philippine culture and a slightly modified cast.

Washington D.C.’s Filipino community and opera lovers turned up at the Eisenhower Theater of the Kennedy Center to watch the adaptation of the historical novel of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. The literary satire exposes the abuses of Catholic friars against the backdrop of 1800s Spanish colonial Philippines. The plot opens with the arrival from Europe of young student, Crisostomo Ibarra, to marry his beloved Maria Clara. It is both a story of romance and love of country.

From the beginning, the producers have said the D.C. production may have a cast slightly different from New York. In D.C., Maria Clara was performed by American soprano Brittany Palmer, a principal artist at the Encompass New Opera Theatre in Brooklyn, New York. FilAm soprano Antoni Mendezona, who played Maria Clara in New York, portrayed Sisa in D.C. Tenor Sal Malaki from the L.A. Opera continued to play the main lead Crisostomo Ibarra. Malaki has performed with Placido Domingo, executive producer Edwin Josue told The FilAm Metro D.C. in an interview.

As for an American woman playing a Filipina mestiza, Josue said Palmer studied her Tagalog very well until her style “meshed with our (Filipino) way of singing.” Palmer played a village woman Sinang in the New York production.

The casting appeared to have gone off without a hitch judging from the audience’s response.

Said architect Presy Guevara, “I liked it a lot. It captured the essence of the novel, and the actors are superb and I love the music. It’s beautiful.”

“I loved it,” said Nilo Santiago, a retired Pentagon employee. “My favorite is the crazy woman Sisa (played by Mendezona); she’s very good.”

Through what many were calling a “superb” musical, some were looking for young singer-actress Kirby Asunto, who was noticeably missing in the D.C. production although her name appeared in posters. Then 15 and wearing a toupee, Asunto played the role of the teen boy Basilio, who is accused by the friars of stealing from the church’s collection money. Her seamless performance earned praise from The New York Times whose theater critic said Asunto “demonstrate(ed) a clear, attractive voice as the altar boy Basilio.”

In the D.C. production, Basilio was portrayed by New Jersey student Elijah Sirilan, who played Basilio’s younger brother Crispin in New York.

Elijah Sirilan is Basilio

Elijah Sirilan is Basilio

Antoni Mendezona, who played Maria Clara in NYC, was Sisa in D.C.

Antoni Mendezona, who played Maria Clara in NYC, was Sisa in D.C.

Explained Josue, “She has a beautiful voice, (that’s why) she was noticed by New York Times. We were telling her to see it with a better perspective. You were noticed by the New York Times, and it’s a great review.”

He said further that Kaye Playhouse where Noli was staged in New York, is a much smaller venue compared to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. The Kaye Playhouse has a 624-person capacity, compared to the Eisenhower Theater, which can seat 1,100 people.

“Kennedy Center is a big theater it’s not the Kaye Playhouse,” he said. “She’s got pop voice but not an operatic voice.”

Josue said the producers offered Asunto the role of Victoria, which the girl declined. “We told her that we want you to be a part of it, but I believe they declined,” he said.

Asunto declined to be interviewed for this article but The FilAm Metro D.C. learned the young singer was “saddened” and “hurt” by the decision not to be cast as Basilio.

Palmer said “it’s difficult” for Kirby to continue to play a boy’s role. “She’s a young woman now. When girls play young boys…and when they start growing up it’s tough because of the transitional period.”

The opera is an adaptation of the music of Felipe de Leon, and the libretto of Guillermo Tolentino. Both are National Artists in the Philippines. The songs are in Tagalog with English subtitles shown on screen, and full orchestration.

The D.C. performance was produced by the Mid Atlantic Foundation for Asian Artists and Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), together with businesswoman and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis, Josue, and Jerry Sibal of J.S. Productions, Inc., whose visual work at the New York production was also hailed by The New York Times. It featured a cast and crew of more than 100 people.

“It’s indeed a Filipino cultural pride to witness this world-class opera unfolding right before our very eyes,” said Grace Valera, MHC executive director. “Rizal’s novels represent the first major artistic manifestation of Asian resistance to European colonialism. We should really have more of this in the U.S. capital.”

Andrew Esmele, a student at George Mason University, said the opera “stayed true to the book.”

“The subtitles helped a lot but even without it I could follow the story and I was able to grasp the main theme. It was very insightful,” he said.

One Comment

  1. Cris Ryan wrote:

    Very well written, keep up the effective reviews!

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