Tenor Arthur Espiritu—who received a standing ovation at the Ayala Museum last February for a deeply moving recital with pianist Najib Ismail—again made history as the first Filipino to sing Cassio in “Otello” mounted in Teatro Communale Luciano Pavarotti in Modena, Italy, recently.
Espiritu, who sang for the first time in the hometown of Pavarotti, said the audience was very enthusiastic in the first two nights. “I heard people cry at the end when Otello killed Desdemona and Otello killed himself. It’s still a timeless work by Shakespeare, and Verdi did it justice.”
He added the Otello of Kristian Benedikt and the Desdemona of Yolanda Auyanet were both sung by fantastic singers. “Kristian [Benedikt] has this huge dark dramatic tenor and Yolanda [Auyanet], with whom I had a conversation, I think sang the most beautiful version of ‘Ave Maria.’ She was fantastic on opening night and got the crowd going with lots of bravos.”
Espiritu admitted his latest Verdi role was not as tough and challenging as his Duke in “Rigoletto,” and his Alfredo in “Traviata.” Nevertheless as Cassio the sidekick of Otello, he said he enjoyed “the chance to play drunk and just lose your temper and just go crazy onstage and beat people up.”
The tough challenge was the ensemble singing. “You have to count all the time, especially in the third-act trio with Otello and Iago. Also, performing for an Italian company requires extra attention to the language. You are singing in Italian and the subtitles are also in Italian. Hence, you are exposed because most of the audience—if not 100-percent—is Italians. Sometimes you will encounter bothersome moments but you have to get through it and just basically do your job.”
The tenor admitted “Otello” was a great work but he would not put it on the level of “Rigoletto” and “Traviata” or even “Attila.” “With ‘Otello,’ I find it very hard to concentrate at times because you are in a lot of interjections and there is no sense of continuity.”
But he found the Teatro Communale named after Pavarotti simply beautiful and, on top of that, it had great acoustics. “The town itself has its charm, a very clean and quiet town. It is surreal to be singing in the place where Pavarotti grew up.”
Pavarotti had his Philippine debut in March 1994 with Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas as impresario. Arenas is the daughter of soprano Remedios Bosch Jimenez who sang with Pavarotti’s teacher, Arrigo Pola, in several operas staged at Far Eastern University Theater.
Among the Filipinos with Pavarotti connections are conductor Julian Quirit, who conducted him in Sydney; tenor Noel Velasco, one of the winners of the 1981 Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competitions; and Evelyn Mandac, the first and last Filipino soprano to sing at the Met.
Mandac met Pavarotti during her busy singing days. She had recalled: “I met Luciano during a rehearsal of Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” with the San Francisco Opera. He was truly a person larger than life and full of fun and mischief. He gave a party of which I was invited together with some of the cast of “L’Africaine.” He loved to cook and he prepared a pasta dish that was quite memorable.”
Espiritu also sang the same role in Teatro Communale in Piazenza, where Jovita Fuentes had her Italian debut as Madama Butterfly in 1925.
For the record, “Otello” has never been performed in the Philippines, not even in the past when Italian opera productions proliferated.
Thus far, the first and the last Filipino to sing “Otello” is the Ohio-based Filipino tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, who sang it in Prague and in Yokohama in Japan. He had earlier expressed a desire to mount it at the CCP but he only succeeded in singing excerpts from “Otello” in a Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra concert in the ’90s, featuring the third act trio with the Iago of Andrew Fernando and the Cassio of the then very young Gary del Rosario. His Desdemona was an Italian soprano who had seen better singing years.
Noted a German critic of the first Filipino Otello: “An Otello with dramatic vocal power blended with stamina as well as beautiful lyrical singing without any noticeable vocal fatigue throughout this murderous role belongs to the rarest breed of tenors. Otoniel Gonzaga has all of these qualities because he does not lack the power in the vengeance duet with Iago or the tenderness in the love duet with Desdemona or the pathos in the final monologue. He never pushed his voice, rather created a sovereign and flexible display of the full spectrum of beautiful singing.”
After Modena, Espiritu flies to Pittsburgh to sing the Prince in “Cenerentola” with the Angelina of the Alaskan mezzo Vivica Genaux.
Back in Manila in May, the tenor—who got married last December to a Filipina—prepares for the big role in his life: fatherhood. “We are having a child soon. So, I must prepare for the little one coming into this world. I am very excited about this.”