Noli Me Tangere - The Opera
by Josh Collier of Opera Brittenica
The curtain opens in the town of San Diego (Calamba) at the turn of the 20th century. Spain, having been established in the Philippines since the 16th century, the Spaniards are the social elites of society. A reception is being given by Kapitan Tiago at his mansion in honor of his friend, Crisostomo Ibarra, a young and rich Filipino who has just returned to his homeland after seven years of collegiate study in Europe, and the fiancé of his daughter; the beautiful Maria Clara.
Among the guests at this reception are: Padre Damaso, a Franciscan friar who had been parish priest for 20 years; Padre Salvi, a young Dominican parish priest of Binondo; Tinyente Guevarra, an elderly and kind lieutenant of the Guardia Civil; Alferes, the civil guard; Don Filipo, a very good friend of Crisostomo’s father; and several other residents. In earlier conversations, it was learned that Don Rafael Ibarra (Crisostomo's Father) defended a helpless boy from the brutality of a Spanish tax collector. He was arrested and thrown in prison for aggression against the aristocracy, where he died alone. He was buried in a consecrated graveyard, but his enemies, accusing him of being a heretic, had his body exhumed and relocated. Meanwhile, dinner is called, and Ibarra and Maria Clara find some private time together, to reminisce about their life before Crisostomo's departure. She teasingly says that he has probably forgotten her because the girls in Europe are very beautiful, to which Ibarra replies that even through the beauty of his travels to Italy and Andalusia, she has never left his heart. Ibarra realizes that the following day is All Saints’ Day, and Maria Clara, taking a flower from her hair, tells Ibarra to go to visit his fathers’ grave.
Ibarra, in the town square on his way to visit his father’s grave, meets some gravediggers at work. They tell Ibarra that his father’s corpse was removed at the order of the parish priest to be reburied in the Chinese cemetery. The corpse was cumbersome, and because it was dark and rainy they decided rather to throw it into the lake. Ibarra, disturbed at the desecration of his father's remains, leaves the scene in search of answers. The Gobernadorcillo, on a stroll, encounters Pilosopo Tasio, (the town’s wise man). Pilosopo Tasio warns the Gobernadorcillo of an impending storm, both meteorological and figurative. The well-placed thunder frightens the Gobernadorcillo who scurries away.
Pilosopo Tasio then encounters the brothers Crispin and Basilio, children of local eccentric, Sisa. The two, hurrying home in time for church, hear the crack of a guard's whip and run to escape the authority. Basilio, the eldest, runs first and faster than his younger brother, Crispin. A gunshot stabs the night air.
The following morning, Sisa, unable to sleep after a wounded Basilio returns home, goes in search of her youngest son. She is physically accosted by guards who demand the return of the money allegedly stolen by Crispin. The stress of these accusations, the physical abuse of the guards, and her utter despair over losing her Crispin are too much for Sisa, and she descends into madness.
The scene shifts and the spotlight is on Pilosopo Tasio with a quill pen in hand and an open book. Ibarra enters and engages the old man in conversation. Ibarra voices his desire to build a school to teach, as education is the only tool against those who would keep his people illiterate. He expresses his disdain for the inhuman treatment accorded his father, and while he desperately wants justice, he also realizes the need for caution in such a precarious social climate.
The following day, Ibarra, Kapitan Tiago, his cousin Tia Isabel, Maria Clara, her friends Sinang, Andeng, and Victoria, and various other personalities from the town are in a boat on the lake nearby. While on the water, Maria Clara, at the insistent request of her friends, obliges with a plaintive song, “Life is Sweet in One’s Native Land." The somber mood created by Maria Clara is broken by the appearance of a vicious crocodile, sending everyone into panic. Elias, the boat pilot, jumps into the water and grapples with the crocodile but cannot subdue it. Ibarra jumps into the water, to save Elias, and kills the crocodile. The passengers on the boat rejoice in the safe return of both Elias and Ibarra, as Elias sings a song of thanks to Ibarra. He returns the thanks in an explanation of his plan to build a school for the town, and Don Filipo joins the duet to become a rousing trio praising bravery and extolling the virtue of education.
At a dinner in Kapitan Tiago’s house, Ibarra shows the plans for his new school to Tiago and interested residents of the towns. Padre Damaso, speaking in the presence of guests, insults the memory of Ibarra’s father, and laughs at Ibarra's idea to educate the simpletons. Ibarra bolts out of his seat, grabs the friar by the neck, and then seizes a sharp knife. A fight ensues, and just at the point of killing the arrogant Padre Damaso, Maria Clara stops him. Ibarra drops the knife and flees the scene. As a consequence, Ibarra is excommunicated from the church and is wanted for attempted murder.
In her bedroom, after the fact, Maria Clara lies in bed lamenting the preceding incident, and because Padre Damaso has instructed her to break her engagement with Ibarra and marry Linares, a cousin of Dr. de Espadana, a bogus physician married to Doña Victorina, a vain and vulgar woman, instead. Enter Padre Salvi, Dr. De Espadana and his wife Dona Victorina, Padre Damaso and Linares himself. Dr. de Espadana approaches Maria Clara, takes her pulse, and tells her she will be just fine, and just needs some rest.
Padre Damaso also nears Maria Clara with the outward intention to comfort her, but then turns immediately to Linares to tell him, with a less than subtle suggestion toward Maria Clara, that he will make sure he finds a suitable wife. Maria Clara sinks into deep despair and resignation, telling Sinang to write a letter telling Ibarra that while her love remains, it would be best if he forgets her. Ibarra appears in renewed spirits informing that the Archbishop may nullify his excommunication through the intercession of the Captain General. Through communication with Sinang, he learns of Maria Clara's newly arranged betrothal to Linares. To assuage his fears, Kapitan Tiago makes light of the situation in a song about the sacredness of marriage. There is a mock wedding where Maria Clara and Ibarra exchange vows and the quartet of their loved ones; Tia Isabel, Tiago, Sinang and Andeng sing a beautiful quartet in support of the engagement of Ibarra and Maria Clara.
The merrymaking is jolted by sounds of gunfire and a militaristic anthem, sung by the revolutionaries waiting just outside, demanding entrance to the house. Alferes, the civil guard enters and arrests Ibarra on a vague charge, and insinuates imminent death for his actions. Ibarra is escorted away by Alferes and accompanying guards.
In the same bedroom as the preceding scene, Maria Clara is seen praying an Ave Maria, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary why love is being denied her. Padre Damaso enters, and upon seeing her, asks what is causing her such grief. She discloses her distress concerning the pending nuptial with Linares, to which the friar reacts violently. Incredulous of her wasted emotion, he tells her that the noble Linares is a thousand times superior to Ibarra. Maria Clara repudiates his arguments and tells Padre Damaso that with her true love dead, she has only two options: death or life in a convent. Hearing Maria Clara's misery, Padre Damaso blames himself for Maria Clara's agony, begs God’s forgiveness for his sins. He then, reveals that it is He and not the previously believed Kapitan Tiago is Maria Clara’s biological father. The truth was contained in letters from her late mother, to Padre Damaso, alluding to their unborn child. Damaso in self-punishment, expresses his remorse, and begs eternal forgiveness.
Maria Clara is once again alone in her bedroom. She hears a knock at the door, and is overjoyed to see Ibarra. Ibarra expresses his profound regret over the situation and explains that considering the circumstances, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for him to be with her again. In an effort to shield her from the prolonged pain of being in love with a criminal fugitive, he urges her to forget him, and move on with her life. She reveals her present misery at having discovered the secret to her true heritage. The lovers profess their undying love for each other, before Ibarra attempts escape with Elias. At his exit, a flurry of gunshots are heard, and Maria Clara collapses in despair, realizing while their love was undying, Ibarra might have been shot.
It is night at the entrance to the San Diego woods, the townswoman Sisa appears grief-stricken, physically and psychologically abused and disheveled, in a desperate search for her children. She sings an intense song of lamentation about her profound loss. Soon Basilio, her eldest son rushes haltingly into the woods calling out his mother’s name. Sisa remains in her demented state. She only recognizes Basilio moments before she dies of hunger, exhaustion and grief. He tries to revive his mother in vain. When he realizes that she has died, he gives voice to a haunting song of grief before weeping intensely.
When Basilio lifts his head he sees a seriously wounded Elias standing before him. He instructs Basilio to burn his body and that of Sisa. He further instructs Basilio to dig at a spot where he will unearth a great treasure (referring to Ibarra’s fortune that he took and buried) for his studies and to pursue his life’s goals. As Basilio gathers wood for the pyre, Elias takes his last breath. Looking to the east he murmurs:
“I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land. You, who have to see it, welcome it! And forget not those who have fallen amidst the darkness.”