Festival Overview

Barcelona is such a vibrant and attractive city that it almost needs no promotion. It is already awash with visitors savouring its architecture, its cuisine, wine, museums and seashore. The grid structure makes it easy to navigate, until you get pleasantly lost in the old town with its labyrinth of meandering alleyways, stuffed with little shops and hidden tapas joints. Most of all, its wide boulevards, with their long strings of pavement cafés, make it a city for ambling. Barcelona has two very different concert halls, L’Auditori and Palau de la Musica, and one superb opera house in the the best mid-nineteenth century style, Gran Teatre del Liceu. They have always sported the sort of individual programme one would expect of any great city like the Catalan capital. Now though, they have pooled their resources to present themselves to the world as a unified force: Barcelona Obertura (Overture). This enables them to draw together their disparate brochures into a series of mini-festivals throughout the year – some themed, some seasonal. During six months there were Christmas, Easter and Spring festivals. In February 2023 there was rather a poignant sequence called Women Who Die For Love which, sensibly, did not quite coincide with Valentine’s Day (anyway, Catalonia celebrates its romantic liaisons on St. Jordi’s Day, 23 April, when the weather is better).

Obertura Co-ordinator: Vera de Frutos Vilaplana

27 April 2023

L’Auditori, Barcelona

Bach                Goldberg Variations

Abel Tomas                 Violin
Jonathan Brown          Viola
Arnau Tomas              Cello

29 April 2023

Gran Teatre del Liceu

Massenet                     Manon
Olivier Py                   Director
Marc Minkowski        Conductor

30 April 2023

Palau de la Musica

Tchaikovsky                Violin Concerto
Brahms                        Symphony No. 3

Franz Schubert Filharmonia
Midori                         Violin
Tomas Grau                Conductor

The Review

I attended the second of the Spring mini-festivals at the end of April. In the L’Auditori’s chamber hall there was an intense and deeply rewarding performance of the string trio version (by Sitkovetsky) of Bach Goldberg Variations by Abel and Arnau Tomas (violin and cello) and Jonathan Brown (viola).

L’Auditori is a stern modernist building on the northern edge of the city centre in an unfashionable part of town. It also houses a symphony hall, a musical instruments museum with a fascinating collection of early guitars, and a musical school. From the outside it is a bit grim and there are no obvious adornments inside either, but as a place to concentrate on the music in comfortable seats without distraction – perfect for Bach – it works very well. This is the unflamboyant, business-like, side of Catalonia, when Barcelona shows itself in parallel to Milan.

Liceu Opera Barcelona sits on Rambla, that famous boulevard that leads down to the sea and hosts a myriad stalls and cafés on its tree-lined central reservation. The theatre is from the same period as London’s Royal Opera House and, like it, a new set of foyers have been added to the side, making it feel traditional and modern at the same time. I saw a witty and raw production by Olivier Py of Massenet’s Manon there as part of the April programme – complete with much lingerie and grubby underpants – with the orchestra playing beautifully for Marc Minkowski. The great thing about Olivier Py’s staging of the Manon story is that much of it is very funny. Manon’s activities involve some determined gambling and a lot of champagne but they mostly revolve around sex. There is something about the sight of male opera singers in grubby white y-fronts that invites a smirk. At least the ladies had more dignified lingerie – just as well, because they were rarely seen in anything else. Those that were dancers barely bothered with bras: indeed the opera opened with them topless riding their clients across the stage – a parade of dominatrixes.

The sets, designed by Pierre André Weitz (as were the costumes) were lavish and almost Broadway in their depiction of Paris around Montmartre, adding to the constant debauchery of the sort that is only attractive by neon at night when under the influence of as many substances as the body can take – and a few that it can’t. The cast on the night I attended was led by Amina Edris as Manon, who found just the right balance between homely girl from the country and seductress who relies on her personality to charm, as perhaps one might expect of a soprano with a background in Egypt and San Francisco. Opposite her, as des Grieux, was Pene Pati, a substantial Samoan who gave the weedy Frenchmen they stood no chance in the fight scenes with, whatever the script said.

The following night it was the Palau’s turn.This extraordinary Art Nouveau confection, designed as the perfect antidote to the hierarchy of 19th century theatres and the gloom of expressionism, is a riot of plaster figures and decorative extravagance that challenges the music to match its enthusiasm. On one side is the unmistakeable figure of Beethoven, glaring down on the players but representing the first free artist. On the other side is the moustachioed figure of Josep Clavé, a composer and politician from the city who created a network of choirs drawn from the factory workers.

That network still exists and owns the building which was full on a Sunday afternoon for Midori, the veteran Japanese violinist, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The Music Palace is not the largest concert venue in Europe but it has to be the most exciting to enter. The sheer fantasy of the decor and the interior architecture is breathtaking and the spirits lift the moment one walks in. It fits the flamboyance of Tchaikovsky perfectly. Sadly the architecture was more distinguished than the orchestra it housed. The Franz Schubert Filarmonia had neither Midori’s subtlety nor her finesse. The playing was efficient but there was no sense that the players were listening to each other or trying to integrate with Midori’s sensitive reading. She was trying to convey the lyricism and pathos of Tchaikovsky’s writing. They were bashing their way through a Romantic cliché. When it came to Brahms’ Third Symphony, this lack of orchestral integration meant that, even had Tomas Grau’s conducting been better than ordinary and the wind playing less acidic, no message of musical import was connveyed.