The project for a new production of an opera in the Philippines is in itself an adventure.
A challenge into the unknown in a country, which is far, not only geographically but also
culturally. Among lessons learnt out of numerous travels abroad, there is one prevailing
principle: never give a universal meaning to what was already experienced, but one should remain conscious that some precise emotions should be translated not into words, but above all, into thoughts. This is how all began, with an assessment trip to the populous capital city of the Philippines, in Manila.
Ravi (who kindly hosts me on his Blog) and I were thus involved in a long, but quite usual, trip towards new constructive adventures. Ravi was born in south-east Asia, in Cambodia and in spite of his rational convictions due to his French roots, he still owns the egnimatic turn of mind, typical of Orient. He, a member of the Khmer Royal Family, was the one who pushed me in the enthusiasm of this new challenge, for a major involvement in South-East Asia and in memory of his grandfather, Prince Norodom Monissara, who led the cambodian diplomatic representation in Manila from 1963
to 1965. It is with pride that we wore the precious Barong, the traditional formal philippine shirt, a gift of Mrs. Tantoco.
As far as I was concerned, in order to proceed with method, I had to convince myself once again that Asia is huge continent and that the Philippines were far away from industrious Japan, where I had so many work satisfactions, from borderless China from Beijing to Shanghai or even from creative Cambodia. The Philippines was a specific reality, as each territory owns its proper identity.
Our reference spot in Manila was the CCP, Cultural Center of the Philippines, built in the 1960s under President Ferdinand Marcos, counselled in the cultural field by his wife, Imelda Marcos. I have always been fascinated by the involvement of Orient in musical culture, especially the italian one: One more reason to reflect on how such far countries with so different traditions could receive the message of our classical composers with sensibility. In Manilla, in the last decades, some very famous soloists sang on the CCP stage, from Luciano Pavarotti to Montserrat Caballé. Legendary Palcido Domingo did an unforgettable “Turandot” with Eva Marton, under the direction of Giampaolo Lomi, who was essentially known in the field of cinema and who has been, thanks to his tightly-knit relationship with the Philippines, the main promoter of our participation to this initiative. He was the one to receive the proposal of Mrs. Tantoco, President of the
Philippines-Italia Association, to set up an opera to celebrate the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations between the two nations.
After the official backgrounds arose the numerous emotions: the tumultuous arrival after a long and tiring trip, the tangling roads in a tropical heat, scarcely mitigated by a supposedly refreshing breeze; and, above all, the curiosity of this immense CCP building, headquarter of a lively activity, with unexpected theatre spaces. An efficient stage staff, with absolute and heartfelt collaboration. One evening, Mrs. Tantoco invited us to a concert of the PPO, Philippine Philarmonic Orchestra, which benefited from the teachings of Maestro Franco Ferrara in the mid 1960s, after his stay in Japan. To put it in a nutshell, a fascinating reality was opening itself to our eyes, inviting us to build up a project, which should have an Italian signature !
The idea was to involve friends, esteemed professionals, such as Maurizio Varamo of the Opera of Rome for the sets and Otello Camponeschi for the costumes; both fellows, always available, began to work at once to provide me with sketches, renderings and models. The choice of the opera was made by Mrs. Tantoco who preferred “L’elisir d’amore” of Gaetano Donizetti, “melodramma giocoso” which had been never staged in the Philippines. Eugène Scribe chose to virtually set the action in Spain, in Asturias province, but it is well known that the “librettista” Felice Romani and above all, Donizetti himself, wanted the opera to take place in Lombardy. We were here in the Pacific Ocean and to give a special expression to the action, I chose to set it in the Roman countryside with its pinetrees, in the 19th century, mostly inspired by the designs of Bartolomeo Pinelli.
The set maker was Mio Infante: From Florence, where he was staying, he came to Rome to be initiated to the treasures of the Eternal City, in occasion of a visit to the workshops of via dei Cerchi, led by Maurizio Varamo with eloquence and many stories, all testifying with wit of the secrets of the Italian School of Opera set designing.
For the costumes, Bonsai Cielo was called and her collaboration gave birth to a beautiful interpretation of the original designs with the bright colours and materials of Philippine traditions.
Such a new and ambitious project demanded concrete supports and the encounter with Executive Producer Nestor O. Jardin was fundamental. Nes, as we all call him friendly, is such a rich personality, who, from the beginning, welcomed us with professionality and sharpness, even when our requests became so complex and overflowing, understanding the targets and the necessity to have the right means to achieve them. With him, Professor Raul Sunico, a great musician, fanous for his prestigious teachings, full of wiseness.
To complete the whole creative team, we were missing the key person, the magus who would be able to render the marvels of lights on stage: the challenge was accepted by Giovanni Pirandello, the great-grandson of the Nobel Prize fro Literature: a concentrate of professionality to be proud of !
Last but not least, the whole cast of singers was to be chosen with the utmost care, in order to give the right connotations to the voices. The Philippines has asked for a significant italian participation but to materialise the actual spirit of collaboration, we needed definitely to give space to the local artistic excellency expressions.
In Manila, together with Ruggero Barbieri, the conductor chosen by Mrs. Tantoco for his solid reputation in the city for several years, we heard many young singers, most of whom were students of soprano Rachelle Gerodias-Park. The ideal that we were longing for and achieved was to have Rachelle herself bringing her special participation as
Giannetta, who perfectly knows how to “cantare all’italiana”, thanks to the teachings of famous diva Mirella Freni. Together with her, for the role of Belcore, Corean Baritone Byeong-In Park, who happened to be Rachelle’s husband, with his solid voice and reliable stage presence. For Adina, the choice was indicated by the Philippine sponsors who noted Elena Monti in Manila in a concert last year which was quite a success thanks to the art of this young and almost charming soprano.
We were still missing tenor and “buffo”. This was an admirable opportunity to open up towards young talents of lyrical art and our absolute reference in finding them was Mrs. Giovanna Lomazzi, vice-president of As.Li.Co. She was coming back from Sant Cruz de Tenerife, after listening to Costa Rican tenor, David Astorga, who won immediately
the first prize of the Salice d’Oro: who else could be a better Nemorino? From Trapani, the baritone, for the occasion in the role of “buffo”, the histrion charlatan Dulcamara would be Francesco Vultaggio, a brilliant student of Simone Alaimo.
The cast was finally done !
This is when the alchemy begins to come true, the stage got animated and the project to get realised. No experience could leave someone indifferent at the very moment of a production birth; a show which will be always different, of which each repetition will never resemble another one and of whom, emotions will be unique because unable to be repeated.
Rehearsals are synonymous of quality and each production is for all, conductor and director included, an opportunity to gain a different conscience. This availability of spirit is a fundamental condition to guarantee the quality of a performance.
One should be opened to what is going to emerge on each very moment, flexible enough to change mind on the spot, following the stream of ideas, motions and gestures which would arise all of a sudden. It is the necessary sine-qua-non to the creative process, the source of enriching surprises, as, for instance, the ones born from the collaboration with the young singers of the Coro Tomasino: our first encounter was under the sign of prudence: “Are they aware that this very special opera needs their constant presence all along the performance” was the question I brought to myself. “How can we render the French manner drama style, although we have to obey some theatrical tricks from the Naples traditions” was another one. The young singers were very attentive and followed every single indication given by Ravi, who is actually gifted to interpretate and translate
my concepts and direction with simple words and efficient phrases. The art of talking to crowds is more than a job, it is a gift!
Day after day, the participants got transformed into characters, following their very own personal motivation to be rendered in deeds and expressions throughout singing and acting. Here, in the Philippines, there is no need for a director to beg for extra hours of rehearsals – absolulety impossible in Europe – because in Manila, all of the coro members, with their kind Maestro Ronan Ferrer, were always ready and grateful for all that they could be able to learn from these precious staging lessons. The emotion would be at its utmost point when, at the end of the performances, the expression of all the young singers would reach its most sincere expression when greeting Prince Ravi, each of the young students of the Conservatory would rise Ravi’s hand towards each one’s forehead in sign of gratitude and respect, from Asians to another Asian, in a universal embrace.
The rehearsal venues in the heart of CCP got animated day after day, following the natural metamorphosis of the progress done in the flowing experiences of an opera setting up. The stage got alive all at once and the music got free from the melody, in which it was jailed. The following surprises came from the extras; all, students of the UST Conservatory, got so deeply involved in their acting, that they gave me the clear impression to become real interpreters of the highest level of drama, always with good mood and smiles.
Last but not least, the marvellous collaboration of elements of the Philippine Ballet
Theatre, for whom I had in mind only two little interventions, at the beginning of the two acts, but, as the dancers got passionately immerged in this sparkling profusion of colours and sounds, from time to time, reported to one’s personal sensitivity, the same dancers brought to life the scenes of Pinelli’s Rome, with mandolines and tamburins, with vivid moves, reflecting elegant poetry in an original interpretation. My grateful thanks to the choreographer Anatoly Panasyuokov, from the Bolchoi ! Our farewell greetings were very emotioning.
The theatrical machine was on its way and no one was left on its own, thanks to the professionality, doubled with witty humour of our stage manager, fairly known as the best of the Philippines, Ed Murillo. In all the show “within the show”, Ravi and I appreciated some litlle privileges such as the (hidden) permission to take a coffee backstage, for instance.
So, then,…. our hearts were beating hard on that very “Gala” evening of the 7th October 2017. One could be prepared and done it for hundred times, but whenever the curtain is opening, words are really lacking to describe the feelings.
Even more after the greetings of CCP President Arseno J. Lizeso, of our ambassador Giorgio Guglielmino recently arrived in Manila, who definitely wants to increase the level of the cultural collaboration, in this case, in the field of opera, between the two countries, and of the President of the Association Philippine-Italy, Zenaida Tantoco. The
execution of the two national anthems, philippine and italian, with the respective flags on both sides of the stage, the prestigious attendance of so many ambassadors, among whom Her Excellency Mrs. Tuot Panha, ambassador of the Kingdom of Cambodia to whom goes my heartfelt gratitude for her encouraging words and presence from
the beginning of this adventure. In synthesis, an honour evening, which weigh its importance on our shoulders with a final result so satisfactory !
The day after, sentiments and feelings were even stronger in occasion of the “matinée”. For the Gala evening, the prices of the tickets were voluntarily high to gather funds for the construction of a new church in the apostolic parrish of Tondo, Manila; on the following sunday, the prices were more accessible and surprisingly, most of the 1.800 seats were occupied. A heterogeneous audience and the new Philippine generation was invading the theatre with its refreshing and exulting strength, during the warm, always accurate applause; a sign of a real involvement in what was going on on stage, as when the audience asked for a “bis” of the famous aria “Una furtiva lagrima”. I was in the light control cabin at the moment of the litteral “invocation” of the “bis” and during the endless applause, the technician launched the following light effect. Generous David Astorga made a sign to the conductor to grant the “bis” and at the same moment, with my approximative English, I tried to have the technician go back to the previous lighting effect. It was a real effort for him: never in his life had he had to do such a thing ! This is when I definitely realised that how all our “rituals” were so different: having an “aria” repeated for us is a clear sign of success and I understood all of a sudden how intense and interesting for both parts were these days spent together, trying to assemble competences and talents to the service of art for art’s sake, a great sentiment of reciprocal progress.
At the end of the performance, when all the soloists, with the conductor and the guest director, were invited to an informal encounter with the spectators on the stairs of the “Foyer”, like 1930s divas. Twinkling flashes of cellphone cameras were telling us not to go, which I personally translated into a “one more time” and “arrivederci” !