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BY Pau Nadal

Historically speaking, the first date on the artistic record of the "Liceu" Opera Housee is April 4th, 1847, one Easter Sunday, and, even though it may sound strange today, that inaugural performance did not include any operatic piece. The works in the programme were an overture by Valencian composer Josep Melcior Gomis, Ventura Lope de Vega's three-act drama "Don Fernando de Antequera" (starring actors Carlos Latorre and Bárbara Lamadrid), the ballet "La rondeña", the music of which had been composed by Josep Jurch, and the cantata "Il regio imene" which Marià Obiols, reading a text written by Joan Cortada, dedicated to Queen Isabel II.

Some days after the inauguration, on 17 April, the first opera arrived: Anna Bolena, by Gaetano Donizetti, directed by Marià Obiols, with a cast headed by Manuela Rossi-Caccia, Carlotta Maironi, Manuel Renou and Andrea Castellan. Other operas performed in the Liceu during the first year were, in this order, I due Foscari (Verdi), Il bravo (Mercadante), Parisina d’Este (Donizetti), Giovanna d’Arco (Verdi), Leonora (Mercadante), Ernani (Verdi), Norma (Bellini), Linda di Chamounix (Donizetti) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini).

However, in those years, opera alternated with other performances of the most diverse nature: zarzuela (Spanish light opera), classical dance (Giselle was given its first Barcelona performance in 1847), theatrical performances, magic shows and a large number of curious activities which today might appear more appropriate for a variety concert or a music hall.

The first operas by non Italian composers which were put on in the Liceu were Ferdinand Hérold’s Zampa (1848), Carl M. von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1849), Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, Daniel F. Auber’s La muette de Portici (1852) and Fra Diavolo, also by Auber (1853), all of which were sung in Italian, as was the custom of the time.

During the first few years, the Liceu saw singers as prestigious as Fanny Salvini Donatelli (who sang the leading role in the world premiere of La Traviata in Venice) and it became a stronghold of Italian opera, to the point that the works of the most important composers of the time were staged there immediately after their world premieres. The first performances of Il Trovatore (1854) and La Traviata (1855) led to the crowning of Giuseppe Verdi as king of opera, despite the reproaches made against La Traviata by more traditional quarters on account of the "modernity" of the work and the stark plot.

The most important premieres in 1856 and 1857 were Gli Ugonotti, I vespri siciliani and Gugliemo Tell, all three in Italian, although the original works were written in French. The first operas by local composers that were performed in the Liceu were La figlia del deserto by Josep Freixas (1854), Gualtiero di Monsonís by Nicolau Manent (1857) and Arnaldo di Erill by Nicolau Guanyabens (1859).

On 9 April 1861, the Liceu was destroyed for the first time by a devastating fire. It was reconstructed in just one year and was re-opened to the public on 20 April 1862 with a performance of the Bellini opera I Puritani, featuring the tenor Pietro Mongini.

In 1866, Mozart was staged at the Liceu for the first time with Don Giovanni, which had already been given its Barcelona premiere in the Teatre Principal in 1849. Wagner was not to be first performed until 1884, with a performance of Lohengrin (which had also previously been performed in the Principal). Between 1880 and 1890 there was great rivalry between the two illustrious tenors, Julián Gayarre, from Navarra, and the Italian Angelo Masini. 1888 saw the last performance of Gayarre and the first performance of the great Catalan tenor, Francesc Viñas, a specialist in the operas of Wagner. In 1890, Víctor Maurel, who had already performed the role of Iago in the world premiere in Milan of Verdi’s Otello, also played this role in the first performance of this work in the Liceu, while Francesco Tamagno (who appeared in la Scala) played the part in subsequent performances.

In 1893, two bombs were thrown into the auditorium during the performance of William Tell. Only one of these exploded, but it caused twenty deaths and numerous injuries. Performances were recommenced in January 1894 with a series of concerts conducted by Antoni Nicolau and shortly afterwards there were performances of L’amico Fritz by Mascagni and Massenet’s Manon, with Hariclea Darclée in the leading role.

The turn of the century was marked by the frenzy for Wagner and the first great successes of the so-called Verismo school (Manon Lescaut, Andrea Chénier, La Bohème, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci). Also for the first time, a Russian opera was staged, Anton Rubinstein’s Nerone, sung in Italian, and one of the greatest of Wagner’s works, Tristan and Isolde, which increased the fervour felt towards Wagner in Barcelona.

The first years of the twentieth century saw the performance in the Liceu of the great Catalan diva, Maria Barrientos, and Richard Strauss conducting his own works. In 1904 Enrico Caruso (in his only Liceu appearance) participated, without great success, in two performances of Rigoletto. Success was, however, recorded by other performers such as Emma Carelli, Adamo Didur, Mattia Battistini, Giuseppe Anselmi, Titta Ruffo, Riccardo Stracciari, Graziella Pareto and Elvira de Hidalgo. In 1904, Siegfried Wagner, son of the great Richard, conducted a concert, and a year afterwards The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was performed, to great acclaim. Also that year, Pietro Mascagni conducted a work, Gemma Bellincioni played the title role in a Salomé, the enchanting Catalan singer Conxita Supervía made her debut, the entire of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung was staged, and then, on 31 December 1913, with Francesc Viñas in the title role, and under the baton of Franz Beidler, Parsifal was given its first Barcelona performance, the very day of the expiry of the period of prohibition of performance of the work outside Bayreuth.

During the First World War, another two internationally famous Catalan singers, Mercè Capsir and Hipòlit Lázaro made their debut. In 1915, Joan Mestres i Calvet became director, a post he was to hold, with parentheses until 1947, beginning a golden age for Russian and German opera, which were now sung in their original language. Mestres also promoted Mozart in the Liceu and was closely related to the success obtained, commencing in 1917, by the ballets of Diaghilev, with Nijinsky, Massine, Lopokova, Txernitxeva and other great figures (years later, another mythical dancer, Anna Pavlova, was also to perform).

During these years, Mestres also contracted new figures such as Tito Schipa, Aureliano Pertile, Beniamino Gigli, Giovanni Zenatello, Genevieve Vix, Tina Poli Randaccio, Lily Hafgren, Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Carlo Galeffi, Miguel Fleta (who was not to appear on stage in the Liceu until 1925), Gilda Dalla Rizza, Feodor Txaliapin (who obtained great acclaim in the performance of Boris Godunof in 1927), Lauritz Melchior (the most prestigious Wagnerian tenor of the time), and many more. During these years, the most renowned conductors also conducted in the Liceu, Serge Koussevitzky, Igor Stravinsky, Felix Weingartner, Hans Knappertsbusch, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter. In subsequent years, despite the difficulties experienced by the impresario Rodés by the proclamation of the Second Republic, new important figures were to appear, such as Toti Dal Monte, Georges Thill, Giannina Arangi Lombardi and Gina Cigna.

During the Civil War, apart from various performances by a French company, the Liceu, which had been nationalised by the Catalan government, was used mainly for concerts of Spanish music and non-musical shows.

After the Civil War, Joan Mestres continued to direct the opera house during eight seasons. During this period, he experienced the difficulties caused by international relations during the Second World War, with various seasons supported by German aid. A large number of Spanish singers were contracted, including Capsir, Campiña, Torres, Vidal and Corbella, and there were memorable appearances by two great figures, Hipòlit Lázaro and Giacomo Lauri Volpi. In Mestres’ final years, the Liceu saw the first performances of four singers who were about to commence brilliant careers: Victoria de los Ángeles, Giulietta Simionato, Mario del Monaco and Giuseppe Di Stefano.

In 1947, the directing company changed and came into the hands of Messrs. Arquer and Pàmias. In view of the preceding years that marked by the almost exclusive programming of the great repertory works, and the conditions imposed by the war and the prevailing political situation, the first season of the new directorship was like a breath of fresh air, with a special renewal of the repertoire, based on various revivals, which featured Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, which had first been staged in the Liceu one hundred years earlier.

For thirty-three years, Pàmias was the leading figure of the Liceu’s activity, during a period when it seemed that it would be impossible to maintain the opera house without any official aid. He renewed the repertoire and promoted the first performances in Barcelona of some one hundred works by a large number of composers, including Stravinsky, Respighi, Lalo, Menotti, Bartók, Honegger, Gershwin, Pizzetti, Poulenc, Rossellini, Montsalvatge, Berg, Janacek, Busser, Ravel, Shostakovich, Lortzing, Prokofiev, Weill, Martinu, Britten, Rota, Malipiero and Manuel de Falla.

The 1948-49 season saw the farewell of the great Barcelona soprano Mercè Capsir, who was very closely linked to the Liceu, and who sang in Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto, together with her disciple, Joan Oncina, who was an important figure in his own right. A year later, a great sensation was caused by the debut of the soprano Kirsten Flagstad with three works (Tristan, Walküre and Götterdämmerung), which were greeted with great acclaim by both Wagnerians and non-Wagnerians.

Between 1950 and 1951 occurred an important event, the first, if somewhat late, performance in Barcelona of Wagner’s Rienzi, with the great tenor Max Lorenz. During the following season, the entire Ring cycle was staged for the first time in the Liceu, conducted alternately by Karl Elmendorff and Rudolf Kempe.

The first performance of the 1953-54 season featured a singer who was to become an idol of Barcelona’s opera lovers, Renata Tebaldi. On that day, she sang La Traviata and, a few days later, Tosca, two works that marked the beginning of a love affair between the Italian soprano and the Liceu audience.

During the 1954-55 season, there were performances of operas by Puccini (La Rondine) and Tchaikovsky (Eugen Onegin), as well as a performance by Ingrid Bergman in Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher and the first performance in Barcelona of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was like a breath of fresh air in the programming, and obtained enormous success.

The year 1955, thanks to the creation of a special board, saw a historic event: for the first time since its foundation, the Bayreuth Wagner Festival was staged away from its normal venue, with memorable performances of Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, and innovative stage sets by Wieland Wagner, which were enthusiastically received.

Shortly afterwards, the Liceu saw the return, in Madame Butterfly, of Victoria de los Ángeles, who was already consecrated as a great international figure, after too long an absence following her initial performances, six years before. The following season witnessed the farewell to the stage of the great dancer and choreographer, Joan Magriñà, a decisive figure for many years in the choreographic activities of the Liceu. In the 1957-58 season, shortly before a memorable Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nilsson and Wolfgang Windgassen, the celebrated José Iturbi conducted a boy called Josep Carreras, who played the part of Trujamán in El retablo de Maese Pedro. Shortly afterwards, the great baritone, Manuel Ausensi, was to return, and Afredo Kraus made his first appearance with Rigoletto.

Although Joan Antoni Pàmias had been a decisive figure in the activities of the Liceu since 1957, he did not actually head the company until 1959. Before commencing his first season at the helm, Pàmias had already brought to the Liceu the London Festival Ballet, the Comédie Française, Jerome Robbins leading the U.S.A. Ballet and a concert by the mythical María Callas (the only occasion in which this great artist appeared in Barcelona). The season began with Renata Tebaldi in Manon Lescaut.

The 1961-62 season saw many important names, including Scotto, Cappuccilli, Corelli, Cossotto, Bacquier, Sutherland, Di Stefano, and the world premiere, in concert version, of Falla’s Atlántida, and the first performances in the Liceu of Montserrat Caballé, who was to become a leading figure in subsequent seasons, including those times of greatest financial difficulty for the opera house.

During the following seasons, there were performances by Leyla Gencer, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Pedro Lavirgen, Jaume Aragall (with a memorable debut as the leading tenor in La Bohème), Rita Gorr, Richard Tucker, Grace Bumbry, Anja Silja, Josep Carreras (now singing as an adult), Luciano Pavarotti, Mirella Freni, Teresa Berganza, Raina Kabaivanska, Shirley Verrett, Agnes Baltsa, Renato Bruson, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Edita Gruberova, Nicolai Gedda and many others; without, of course, forgetting the world of ballet with figures such as Lifar, Fonteyn, Nureiev, Barishnikov, Alicia Alonso; the ballets of the Marqués de Cuevas, the Kirov, Paris Opera, Maurice Béjart, the Royal Ballet Company and City of London Ballet Company, and concerts under the baton of Böhm, Karajan, Solti and Maazel.

The death of Pàmias in 1980 revealed the need for the intervention of the official bodies if the institution was to remain a leading opera house. In 1981, the Consortium of the Gran Teatre del Liceu was created, at the beginning with the participation of the Government of Catalonia, the City Council of Barcelona and the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu and later, the Diputació de Barcelona and the Ministry for Culture. In little time, the Consortium managed to attract the public back to the Liceu, owing to the considerable improvement in its artistic standard. This included a more complete and up-to-date perspective of the very nature of an opera performance, a great improvement in the choir and orchestra, careful casting, and attracting the interest of the public to other aspects of productions besides the leading roles alone. This approach, coupled with the new economic support and a more demanding and discerning public, resulted in a high standard of productions.

During the relatively short period of operation of the Consortium, the most important Barcelona premiere, which occurred during the 1985-86 season, was Arnold Schönberg’s Moses und Aron, conducted with mastery by Uwe Mund, a very ambitious production that, nonetheless, yielded excellent results. Also of great importance, notwithstanding its novelty, was the staging, during the 1992-93 season, of a minimalist work, Philip Glass’s controversial Einstein on the beach. This period also saw the first staging in the Liceu of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

The seasons organised by the Consortium maintained high standards in casting, production and public loyalty, as measured by public attendance, but all this came to a halt with the fire on 31 January 1994.

During the reconstruction period, great efforts were expended to ensure the continuity of artistic activity, with the laudable intention of keeping alive the spirit of the Liceu. The works produced were staged mainly in two venues, the Teatre Victòria and the Palau de la Música Catalana, but other venues were also used, the Palau Nacional de Montjuïc, Palau Sant Jordi, Santa Maria del Mar, Mercat de les Flors, Teatre Nacional de Catalunya and the new Auditorium. Fifteen operas were staged during this period and eighteen were performed in concert version. Other concerts were also hosted, song recitals and instrumental performances, symphony concerts, the extraordinary opera gala in the Palau Sant Jordi on 17 March 1994, and there were also performances by three ballet companies.

Now, following reconstruction, the Liceu again opens its doors to the public to continue the brilliant saga which began in 1847, and which encapsulates such a large part of the history of the city. On 7 October, at the staging of Puccini’s Turandot, the first words to be sung will be "Popolo di Pekino, la legge è questa". We could substitute these with "Popolo di Barcelona, il Liceo è questo".