Planet Opera: Barcelona

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When I give lectures about opera or meet people at performances, I am asked many interesting questions. I hope that readers of my blog posts will write in with questions and I will try to answer them in future entries. The three questions I am asked most come so frequently that I might as well answer them here so we can move on to others.

Mr. Plotkin, Who is your favorite of the Three Tenors? 

I always give the same answer: Alfredo Kraus. Once I decide if the questioner knows who the magnificent Señor Kraus (1927-1999) was, I will then explain that he sang, by choice, a limited number roles in the category known as tenore di grazia (from I Puritani, Rigoletto, Werther, Lucia di Lammermoor and a few others) that made audiences swoon from the beauty of his singing. If the questioner knows of Kraus, there is usually a quick assent that yes, there was no one like him. If not, then the person asking is told to go listen to the artistry of this divo per eccellenza. This helps me avoid having to rate Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti, all of whom I have known personally, worked with, and adore. Why should I pick one when we opera lovers were blessed to have all three, plus Alfredo Kraus, Jon Vickers and others, all making opera great in the same era.

Mr. Plotkin, what is the best opera performance you have ever been to?

I could name a few and will discuss one of them below. But the next one I attend has the same potential for greatness as the thousands that I have heard, so I mostly look forward rather than back.

Mr. Plotkin, what is your favorite opera?

I don’t care for this question because, like the first two, it asks me to limit my choice when there is no need to. I have been able to narrow my list to five, sort of: Andrea Chénier, Don Carlo, Don Giovanni, Tannhäuser and every note and rest written by Rossini. But that is only the shortest list, to which I would quickly add La Clemenza di Tito, Fidelio, I Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Lohengrin, Götterdämmerung, Les Troyens, Queen of Spades, Elektra, Porgy and Bess, Dialogues of the Carmelites, and many, many more works.

On my shortest list, most people accept Don Carlo, Don Giovanni and Tannhäuser and think I am being cheeky about Rossini (I am not), but they are skeptical about Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896). It is a work that most tenors pine to sing because it has some of the most glorious music for that voice. All Three Tenors sang it, as did Franco Corelli at his heart-throbbing peak, and many more. But not, however, Alfredo Kraus, for whom it required more vocal heft than he could provide.

The first time I heard Andrea Chénier coincided with other circumstances to make it memorable. It was in the late 1970s; I was living the student life in Italy and traveling around Europe. I reached Barcelona, having no idea what work was being given at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the city’s historic opera house. I had not yet heard of the Italian Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) or his opera. I did not know Juan Pons, the baritone singing Carlo Gérard, and did not recognize the name Josep Carreras i Soler who was to play the title character. But Montserrat Caballé (right) was scheduled to sing Maddalena de Coigny and, though she was a famous canceler, I decided that the price of my student ticket was worth the risk. 

I do not recall who conducted -- at that time I had not yet learned how central the maestro was to what would happen on the stage. What I do recall was the roar that erupted when the orchestra entered the pit, the next one that came for the conductor and then the absolute explosion of cheers when Andrea Chénier came onstage and I realized that the tenor was José Carreras, whose Catalan name was on the billboard outside. We were in Catalonia, after all.

I was involved in a production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at La Scala a couple of years earlier that also ranks among the best I have seen. It starred Mirella Freni, Piero Cappuccilli, Carreras, and Ruggero Raimondi, conducted by Claudio Abbado and directed by Giorgio Strehler. All Italians, apart from Carreras. These are all legendary artists now, yet the Milan audience only gave them cursory applause for most of the evening. Something was different in Barcelona, and this was an early lesson for me that opera-going varies from one place to the next, even if you have the same work with the same stars. The audience plays its role and, wow, did the Barcelonans do it well!

When Caballé came onstage, the theater rocked again, and Juan Pons was greeted with lusty applause too. The three stars were all Catalans. The audience expectations were high, but so was the encouragement. At that time, Spain was a young democracy just finding its feet after decades under Franco. Catalonia had always believed itself to be autonomous and it intended to enjoy that status. Culturally it looked toward France more than Spain. Its own language, traditions, even food (a lot of it in the marvelous Boqueria market steps from the opera house), were largely suppressed in the Fascist era.

When these singers were on the stage, the audience not only cheered their performances but the fact that they were Catalans. Caballé, one of the greatest divas of the past century, really lit up that night. It was not just her customary beautiful sound and limpid pianissimi, but impassioned singing. Carreras was in his prime and it is hard to think of anyone who made a more sensitive Chénier, a character based on the real figure of a poet at the time of the French Revolution. He sang like a poet that night. Juan Pons was young and created a nemesis for the two leads that made his character complex and even somewhat sympathetic.

I noticed too, that night in Barcelona, that the audience let every note be sung before cheering. They knew that the artists should not be drowned out by applause until their arias were completed. But then the ovations were rapturous. Caballé, Carreras, and Pons were playing to the home-town crowd, which is like watching the Yankees in Yankee Stadium, Manchester United at Old Trafford, or the Pope leading a mass at the Vatican. 

The Catalan people are orgullosos (proud), not in a vain sense but of their identity and accomplishment. This has always been a region of forward-looking creativity, whether in the architecture of Gaudí, the paintings of Dalí or the cooking of world-famous chef Ferran Adria. The Gran Teatre de Liceu opened in 1847 and was different from most in that it was not built with patronage from a monarch but the investments of private individuals. It has no royal box, making it different from the Teatro Real (Royal Theater) in Madrid, a few steps from where the Spanish king and queen reside.

As I sat in the Liceu, I recalled that another Catalan had been important in my life: Victoria de los Angeles (1923-2005). My father was a musician with superb taste and he taught me about singing through four famous voices: de los Angeles (soprano, right), Marilyn Horne (mezzo-soprano), Jussi Bjorling (tenor), and Ezio Pinza (bass). Somehow no baritone made the cut. To me, Victoria de los Angeles represented elegance, tenderness, resilience and many of the roles she undertook. The La Bohéme recording in which she was Mimi and Bjorling was Rodolfo is pretty much the gold standard. Dad also adored Catalan pianist Alicia de Larrocha and composers Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) and Enrique Granados (1867-1916). The first recital I ever attended featured de los Angeles on voice and guitar and de Larrocha on piano and the memory of them is indelible more than 45 years later.

Catalan pride extends in many directions, much of it based on openness to the new and a respect for work and art. The productions at the Liceu have long been at the cutting edge artistically. First-class singers have sung in some pretty odd stagings, some great and others not (I saw a bizarre Lohengrin in which the characters were all badly behaved children), but audiences treat all of these stagings as artistic statements they are open to. I greatly admire their open-mindedness and embrace of the new rather insisting that things be done as they always were.

For Catalans, the best singers (no matter where they are from) are artists and are treated as such. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. So a performance at the Liceu is seldom routine and is richly cherished.

On January 31, 1994, there was a dreadful fire in the theater when a spark accidentally set the curtain alight. Much of the Liceu was destroyed, but the industrious Catalans began planning its resurrection before the fire was extinguished. Unlike Italian opera houses in Venice and Bari, where fires put the theaters out of commission for way too long, the Liceu began to rise from its ashes and reopened on the same site in 1996. The old was preserved and was improved by the new. Despite economic hardships, the Liceu still presents a formidable season each year and the experience of going to an opera there is undiminished.

You probably are wondering what it was like to hear Caballé and Carreras in Barcelona. Here, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, is an excerpt from a performance in December 1979. The photography is rudimentary but the sound is mostly excellent. While the clip ends before the applause, note how focused and impassioned these artists are, inspired as they are by the music, the audience, and one another. This is “Vicino a te”, sung just before Chénier and Maddalena die together at the guillotine. There is no better love duet in all of opera:

This is the first of a periodic series of entries about operagoing around the world. What are some of your memories of attending opera in a city other than your own?