The Tenor of His Voice: An operatic afternoon with Mr. Arthur Espiritu

By John Anthony S. Estolloso

Opera is an acquired taste. Not everyone necessarily sits through three hours of bel canto sung in a foreign language and go home to tell everyone how immensely they enjoyed their evening without understanding a word of what they just listened to. Still, it does not detract from the opulent beauty embedded in the mysterious poetry of the libretto, the leitmotifs that pervade recurringly throughout its performance, or the sheer pageantry involved in its production. For one born to a generation that is more familiar with the Broadway musical, having an ear for opera is indeed taking the musical path less traveled – but it does open doors to dramatic and literary worlds that would have been consigned to mainstream film or literature.

Last week saw a rare opportunity to hear opera in our familiar stomping grounds at UP Visayas. World-acclaimed tenor Arthur Espiritu regaled audiences with a truly world-class performance, displaying the grandiose tenor (i.e. quality) of his voice: there is much warmth, verve, range, depth, technical skill, and altogether, a breathtaking (pun intended) intensity in his delivery of what the audience might just usually hear through a recording or from a most impersonal YouTube video. Indeed, great theater – opera included – should be a communal experience.

With most of the afternoon devoted to Italian, German, and French selections, Mr. Espiritu has shown himself equal to understanding the little things that comprise the varied musical traditions of each culture. He opened the programme with Rossini’s La Promessa and Bellini’s La Ricordanza. His interpretations recall Sicilian nuances – passionate, amorous, and sultry, at the very least, without being too overblown. One might have thought of Enrico Caruso belting out these songs and with a voice – and face – to match the Italian tenor, our singer did not fail in resemblance.

Contrasting the sheer bravado of these hot-blooded songs would be the gentler and more solemn lieder: Mr. Espiritu’s delivery of Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh’ resonates to the more subtle German courtship characterized by clear metaphors and analogies – a striking trademark of the Romantic Movement to which Franz Schubert belonged. Matching this would be his powerful performance of Freunde, das leben ist lebenswert from Lehár’s Guiditta, recalling the gypsy melodies that the composer loved to incorporate in and to color his musical works.

The French chanson is a tradition of its own, leaning more on the lyric style of singing, which makes it as an apt musical setting to poetry. Mr. Espiritu’s performance of Duparc’s Chanson triste contains a certain pathos that seems to pervade everyone caught in the moment of his singing, that haplessness resonating the simple yet somber lyrics of the lover in his yearning. Hahn’s setting of Paul Verlaine’s poem L’heure exquise holds a parallel setting of a moonlit and tender night for a lovers’ tryst – something that our tenor was able to capture in his delivery.

In terms of range and skill, Mr. Espiritu has given it all in the opening numbers. Still, it would be safe to say that his prowess not only as singer but as a dramatic performer was put on the limelight by his delivery of two of the most popular arias written for a tenor: The Flower Song from Bizet’s Carmen and Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La Bohème.

Both arias are crucial to the operatic repertoire as both come from narratives which reflect what it takes to stage an opera: for Carmen, the tragic, violent, incomprehensible romance that is a staple in most plots, and for La Bohème, the sublime artistic experience of the writer, the composer, the painter who starves in the morning, sells something in the afternoon, and celebrates life by the evening – to repeat the same cycle all over again, all in the name of art, beauty, and truth. At its heyday, opera subscribed to these principles, and it is in this spirit of verismo that narratives are told and retold onstage.

Lending variation to a programme mostly devoted to vocal music would be the exquisite talents of Mr. GJ Frias at the piano and Mr. Andrew Constantino on the clarinet. As prelude to both segments of the recital, they performed a suite of variations from Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto. It is heartwarming and titillating to hear once more the miasmic opening of Traviata’s prelude interspersed with the melodies of its beloved arias and duets springing around in a virtuosic mélange of glissandos and arpeggios from both instruments. Admittedly, the Rigoletto suite’s highlight was the rendition of the famous quartet – and that was it. Then again, it is not obligatory to look for La donne e mobile or Questa o quella each time the leitmotifs of Verdi’s deformed clown are played.

Capping the evening of standing ovations and endless calls for more songs would be Mr. Espiritu’s rendition of Espino’s Kundiman ng Langit and an encore comprising of Gastaldon’s Musica Proibita, Abelardo’s Bituing Marikit, and Cuenco’s stirring Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal, the last one being accompanied by Mr. Constantino on the clarinet.

For some of our readers here, these might sound all Greek to you. Nevertheless, I invite you to try out opera. There is so much in this artform that encompasses humanity, that Richard Wagner would call the form as ‘a complete work of art’: literature and narrative, poetry, dance, design, and of course, music, are all part and parcel of it.

If you wish to check out notable performances of the aforementioned arias, here are some links to recordings:

The Flower Song from Bizet’s Carmen (Jonas Kaufmann, The Royal Opera):

Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La Bohème (Ramón Vargas, The Metropolitan Opera):