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Filipino opera gets its Washington premiere at the Kennedy Center

The cast of "Noli Me Tangere,” a Filipino opera that premiered in Washington at the Kennedy Center on Aug. 8, conveyed love for libretto and music. (Troi Santos/Courtesy of the Foundation for Filipino Artists Inc.)

A Filipino opera billed as the first such work composed in Western style received its Washington premiere Friday evening at the Kennedy Center with a cast that performed proudly and conveyed a love for libretto and music.

Composed in 1953 by Felipe P. De Leon, “Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not)” is based on Jose Rizal’s 19th-century novel of the same name. Written in three acts, the libretto — sung in the Filipino language Tagalog — tells the story of two star-crossed lovers during the sociopolitical unrest of colonial Philippines.

Directed by Anna Etsuko Tsuri and presented by the Mid-Atlantic Foundation for Asian Artists, the production of “Noli” unfolded as an elegant affair in the Eisenhower Theater. Despite several awkward scenery-change pauses, the opera overall flowed with passages reminiscent of Mozart, Rossini, Puccini and Wagner under conductor Benjamin Dia’s baton.

Playing the hero, Crisostomo Ibarra, Sal Malaki and his golden tenor anchored the opera, and his expressive singing sent it soaring. As his faithful betrothed, Maria Clara, soprano Brittany Palmer performed with vocal subtlety and fragile stage presence befitting a tragic heroine.

Baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez’s Elias embodied bravery and righteousness, while Antoni Mendezona turned in a captivating performance as Sisa, the mother of two boys, Basilio (sung by the talented Elijah Sirilan) and Crispin (Zion Sirilan), who disappear, prompting her derangement. Mendezona’s coloratura dazzled and pulled heartstrings during her lament in the woods.

Rounding out the fine cast, baritone John-Andrew Fernandez was convincing as the spiteful Padre Damaso, while soprano Katrina Saporsantos sang beautifully as Tiya Isabel.

Jean is a freelance writer.

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