© Turisme de Barcelona
© Turisme de Barcelona

Of all European cities, one of the best for a weekend break has to be Barcelona. It offers a mix of ancient and modern: the Ciutat Vella – the ‘old town’ – where the gothic quarter expands around the original Roman city; and the L’Eixample district, home to Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Família Basilica. Stroll along La Rambla, possibly the world’s most celebrated tree-lined avenue with its flower stalls and street performers, or wander up to Montjuïc Castle, the old military fortress overlooking the city. Head there in May, before the temperatures climb steeply, and you can soak up a wonderful weekend at the Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house.

Gran Teatre del Liceu © Antoni Bofill
Gran Teatre del Liceu
© Antoni Bofill

The Gran Teatre del Liceu (Lyceum) was founded on La Rambla in 1847. The first opera to be staged there was Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Fire detroyed the auditorium in January 1994, but it was rebuilt and put under public ownership, reopening in 1999. Even in the years the house was closed, the Liceu continued providing the city with operatic performances. With its main hall directly inspired by Milan’s La Scala, horseshoe in shape and with five levels of seating, it has a capacity of over 2292 (the largest horseshoe shaped house in Europe). Audiences at the Liceu can enjoy a range of operas and in May, you can catch two imaginative productions of 19th-century classics in just one weekend.

Donizetti’s Francophile comedy La Fille du régiment went down a storm when it was premiered in Paris. It clocked up over 500 performances at the Opéra-Comique in a little over 30 years and was regularly performed there on Bastille Day. Set in the Napoleonic Wars, Marie is the vivandière of a French regiment. Soldiers found her abandoned on the battlefield as a baby and they raised her as “the daughter of the regiment”. In Donizetti’s frothy opera, she falls in love with Tonio, a Tyrolean but one who happily switches his allegiance to France. Their romance is thwarted when it is discovered that Marie is the niece of the redoubtable Marquise de Birkenfield, who drags her away to raise the tomboy as a lady. Will love win the day? Not if the Marquise has anything to do with it!

Patrizia Ciofi and Pietro Spagnoli in <i>La Fille du régiment</i> © Antoni Bofill
Patrizia Ciofi and Pietro Spagnoli in La Fille du régiment
© Antoni Bofill

Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s is justly celebrated, being co-produced with The Met, the Royal Opera and the Vienna State Opera. His larger-than-life sets have enormous maps of the Austrian Tyrol stretching out across the stage and he delights in the ridiculous. The French regiment, under Sergeant Sulpice, is a particularly hapless bunch, with plenty of scope for slapstick comedy. The production was last presented at the Liceu in 2010, so a revival is well overdue. Spanish soprano Sabina Puértolas, who last sang at the house as Despina (Così fan tutte) takes on the role of thei feisty Marie, while Mexican tenor Javier Camarena sings Tonio. Camarena has very much made a name for himself in this role, pinging out the nine high Cs in the famous aria “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête”. Among the rest of the cast, Polish coloratura contralto Ewa Podleś will surely have a field day in the comic role of the Marquise.

Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is, frankly, less of a giggle. It is essentially a ghost story about a sea captain who is cursed to roam the seas forever without rest. Once every seven years, he can step ashore and – if he can find the love of a good woman who will be true to him – he will be released from the curse. The opera was inspired by a perilous sea voyage from Riga to London that Wagner undertook in 1839 – listening to the stormy overture, this isn’t hard to believe.

<i>Der fliegende Holländer</i> at Staatsoper Berlin © Matthias Baus (2013)
Der fliegende Holländer at Staatsoper Berlin
© Matthias Baus (2013)

In the opera, the Dutchman meets a Norwegian sea captain, Daland, who him promises his daughter, Senta, in marriage. Senta has been fascinated by the legend of the Dutchman since childhood and swears to be true to him. This doesn’t go down too well with her boyfriend, Erik, who feels betrayed. Forced into a dramatic decision, will Senta make the ultimate sacrifice to save her man?

Director Philipp Stölzl's production has already been seen in Basel and Berlin. In his Dutchman, the action takes place in Senta’s imagination. In the library of Daland’s mansion, she searches out the book which tells the Dutchman’s tale, obsessed by his story. Daland brings in Senta’s husband-to-be (not the Dutchman) but Senta instead imagines the Dutchman in a giant portrait, so the duet takes place on two levels. At her wedding party, things don’t go quite as planned.

Albert Dohmen and Egils Silins share the role of the Dutchman, with the Latvian Silins taking the role in late May. For the final two performances in the run, dramatic soprano Anja Kampe sings Senta, a role she has sung all over Europe.

Khatia Buniatishvili © Julia Wesley
Khatia Buniatishvili
© Julia Wesley

If you time your visit to Barcelona correctly, you can catch the Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, the oldest orchestra still active in Spain, in an all Tchaikovsky concert conducted by Josep Pons. Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili has a huge international following and a reputation for tackling wild, dramatic works by the likes of Liszt. She performs one of the most famous piano concertos – Tchaikovsky’s First – which was initially dismissed by the intended recipient, Nikolai Rubinstein, as “worthless and unplayable”. Eventually, Rubinstein would go on to champion the concerto. The other Tchaikovsky work on the programme is the Fifth Symphony, a work dominated by Russian gloom and the idea of fate looms large. It should make a dramatic curtain-raiser to an operatic weekend at the Liceu.

Click here for full Liceu listings. 

Article sponsored by Gran Teatre del Liceu.