YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Barcelona for the senses

In this sophisticated Spanish city, three celebrated palaces of music are a feast for the eyes as well as for the ears.

October 13, 2002|Stanley Meisler

Barcelona, Spain — Painters such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro and architects such as Antonio Gaudi have given this city a reputation as a center of European art. Less known is its role as a musical metropolis. But Barcelona, the capital of the Spanish region of Catalonia, has produced as many virtuoso musicians as artists, and its three houses of music -- the Liceo, the Palau de la Musica Catalana and L'Auditori -- are a delight to patronize, or merely to behold.

The musical history is distinguished. Pablo Casals, the renowned cellist, founded and directed the Barcelona Symphonic Orchestra until the Spanish Civil War sent him into exile. Pianist Alicia de Larrocha debuted at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a showpiece of art nouveau architecture, at age 7. Until recently, when Madrid's Teatro Real began staging operas, the Liceo served as the only major opera house in Spain. Singers Victoria de los Angeles, Jose Carreras and Montserrat Caballe, all born in Barcelona, made their debuts at the Liceo.

The Liceo has become so popular that it is difficult to obtain a ticket without a season subscription. The modern L'Auditori opened as the new home of the Barcelona Symphonic Orchestra three years ago.

For a traveler in Barcelona, the city's three music houses offer special musical, architectural and historical experiences. Even if a sightseer does not have time for a concert, the buildings themselves are well worth a visit.

The oldest is the Liceo, which opened in 1847. It is officially known in Catalan, preferred over Spanish by the regional government, as Gran Teatre del Liceu (Grand Theater of the Lyceum), but most people use the shortened version of its Spanish name and call it the Liceo.

Its inner public rooms, like those of most European opera houses of the mid-19th century, are sumptuous. A 1994 fire, started by a workman, destroyed the stage, ceiling and seats of the auditorium. The rebuilding took five years and restored the public spaces to their original elegance. It is wondrous to ascend the red-carpeted marble staircase, wander into the ornate Salon of Mirrors with its ceiling paintings, golden chandeliers and classical columns, and gaze upward at the five gilded balconies and the allegorical paintings overhead.

The 2,300-seat Liceo offers an array of opera, ballet, concerts and recitals every month except August. Opera is the mainstay; its ambitious operatic program for the 2002-03 season includes Henry Purcell's "The Fairy Queen," Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," Mozart's "Don Giovanni," Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades," Wagner's "Das Rheingold" and "Die Walkure" and Verdi's "Aida."

The Palau de la Musica Catalana is the most breathtaking of the three music houses, a stunning work of art nouveau -- a flowery architectural and decorative style marked by whiplash curves, natural forms and nationalist symbols. The style prospered at the turn of the 20th century. Given various names in different cities -- it was called modernisme in Barcelona -- the style was derided as excessive for many years but has returned to favor recently.

The best-known artist of modernisme was the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. The Palau de la Musica Catalana, completed in 1908, was designed by one of his contemporaries, Lluis Domenech i Montaner. Like several of Gaudi's buildings, the Palau has been declared a World Heritage Site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

I attended a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra one night last season and watched many of the musicians gape in astonishment as they filed onto the stage. The decoration of the auditorium is so lavish that it defies the imagination of anyone brought up in the functional concert halls built later in the 20th century. Wagner's Valkyries on horseback, carved in white pumice, storm across the proscenium. Muses, carved in stone and dressed in mosaic, play their instruments on the wall behind the stage. A stained-glass dome shines down on the audience.

I recently took one of the guided daytime tours of the Palau and found it unusually informative. Moreover, a daytime walk reveals how Domenech i Montaner fashioned the stained-glass windows and dome to bathe the interior with glistening sunlight. A concertgoer can't see this at night.

The facade of the Palau is almost as ornate as the interior. There are an array of towers, an egg-shaped dome, mosaic columns and busts of Bach, Beethoven and other composers. It is crowned by an extraordinary mosaic mural of the singers of the Orfeo Catala, the Barcelona choral group that originally commissioned the building and that still sings there.

The theater was renovated and enlarged in the 1980s. Additional reconstruction, scheduled for completion in 2003, will include a piazza for outdoor concerts.

Los Angeles Times Articles