Monday, September 17, 2007

Before the three tenors

Luciano Pavarotti (God bless his soul!), Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras forged a partnership and pushed through joint concerts, through the last decade of the 20th century and into the first five years of the 21st, that made opera a much-sought musical experience all over the world--and not only in elite circles. At least two of these operatic gods, if I remember right, made it to singular--and sadly, single--performances here in the Philippines.

The truth is that there is a very limited audience for opera in the Philippines. In our generation, one reason may be that the few opera singers that we produced never quite gave the genre the life, the vitality, the excitement that accompany the performances of more dedicated opera singers abroad. Perhaps it is the thinness of the Filipino voice, the lack of verve in the Filipino operatic singer, the stiffness. Opera, after all, is theater and not just music. Opera is not opera without spirit, without brio.

Did Lilia Reyes exhibit that spirit in this Elvira Manahan production? Frankly, almost 30 years after the event, I don't remember anymore. Perhaps students of Philippine television can look for the tape of this show and find out for themselves. But as any television reviewer knows, the good thing about this kind of production--it was not a television coverage of an operatic presentation; it was a presentation of a few operatic and other musical numbers especially choreographed and designed for television--is that it can make opera acceptable even to people who wouldn't think of buying tickets to listen to opera in the theater. The secret is in the packaging.

A few times in my career as an observer of local television, I conversed with Elvira Manahan about her productions. Many only remember her as the host of Two for the Road. I remember and salute her also for pioneering in the production of television shows that sought to provide the Filipino televiewing audience with experience in watching opera and ballet on the small screen.

"Impressions," TV Times, 1-7 July 1979


There is an unlikely blend of cult and culture waiting to be discovered by a distinct segment of the televiewing audience. And the Elvira Ledesma Manahan (as the credits go) production, Lilia Reyes and Other Voices, is opening Philippine television's doors for such a discovery. The special ranges the musical scale from classical to popular and flashes back through the glorious years of a private family estate and a renowned popular theater. Surprisingly enough, the trip is thoroughly enjoyable. The mix in the production's cultural bag is culled from the operatic aria and the soulful ballad. These, plus an excellent combination of stylistic skill and visual flare, fine craftsmanship, and expert musicianship.

Lilia Reyes is, undoubtedly, the star of the show. With the astonishing variety of her repertoire and the virtuosity of her performance, she makes the demands of singing opera sound like a cinch. Her interpretation of Menotti's "The Telephone"--a satiric but entertaining piece, at once poignant and wonderfully funny, laced with musical and verbal wit--is a gem of a performance, solid and memorable.

Rico J. Puno, a little uneasy outside his natural turf, shuffles through the production with the guilty look of someone who feels, for once, certainly insecure. He hams it up though, and quite charmingly, in his operatic duet with Lilia Reyes. But he is still at his best when he sings a Charo Unite song. With his own type of singing and his own kind of music, he provides a perfect foil to Lilia's opera, without demeaning either.

Not for years, certainly, has the possible popular appeal of opera been mined with as much joy and humor on local television as in Lilia Reyes and Other Voices. And not for some time have we seen as beautiful a blending of the documentary and musical formats as in this one-hour special. Instead of simply prefacing and illustrating the musical numbers, the production provides viewers with enough substantial background on subject and location, utilizing the informal conversation technique in some instances and, in others, narration. Throughout both techniques, the camera lovingly catches images and transforms them with deep-focus photography, slow dissolves, highlights, and double exposure (or what goes for it on tape), searing them into the eye of the mind with varying degrees of clarity. In few local productions have we seen such intuitive understanding of the grammar of filmmaking--of what the camera could see and say--applied to television.

Many images could hardly be bettered: the opening frame showing the Metropolitan Theater, like an obelisk reaching out to the blue sky; the high comedy of "The Telephone"; the little chat between Elvira Manahan and Lilia Reyes on the open porch of the Benitez house; the beautifully angled interior shots of the theater with the camera moving effortlessly through balustrades and stair steps and seats. One scene, however--the one where Lilia Reyes sings her first Tagalog song--is beautifully but self-consciously posed in the garden; later, you notice the flatness of the scene, the lack of movement and depth.

The musical numbers performed in the Metropolitan Theater benefit from precise staging and expert sound dubbing, both contributing to a polished production. Only in the dialogue portions does the sound track fail the viewer, muddling the conversations and making portions unclear and incoherent during the sneak preview of the show. Let us hope that when the special is finally aired, the situation will have been cured or minimized. Otherwise, the audience will miss some quite trenchant and amusing comments by the participants.

Unhappily, not all in the cast are as comfortable to watch in their roles as Lilia Reyes, Rico J. Puno, and Elvira Manahan. In the two locations where she appears on-screen as narrator, June Keithley tends to compete with the background and the narration rather than work with both. There is history, and grandeur, and generations of gentility in the Benitez estate and the Metropolitan Theater, but what one hears is the jagged, high-pitched speech of a scenery-chewing orator. Will we ever learn that narrating is not declaiming and that the most effective narration is always natural and low-key?

These minor defects aside, however, Lilia Reyes and Other Voices stands as a stunningly filmed and carefully produced experiment in the use of sophisticated electronic equipment to bring culture and mass audience together in an occasional but perhaps beneficial friendship. Opera is not popular entertainment. Lilia Reyes and Other Voices tends to bridge the traditional gap between art and entertainment. It is a measure of the show's success that it has not only done so painlessly but that it has also in the process approximated art itself. This kind of opera, I can take and enjoy now and in the future.

-- NBT

No title in original published article

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