The Magic Flute
On Sunday, April 22, at noon, there was a very special concert at the Liceu, offered to the public at bargain rates (€15 for every seat) by the workers of the opera house as a gesture of affection and solidarity.
These are the same workers who have taken a salary hit in order to maintain the rest of the 2011-2012 season without cuts, and their positive attitude is nothing short of miraculous. I am strongly in favor of unions and workers’ rights, but, depressingly, they are usually associated with marches, angry banners, strikes, blockages (or, as in France, cartloads of artichokes dumped in street intersections!). So to be confronted with this dignified and warmhearted occasion, supported as it was by just about everybody of importance to the Liceu, was enormously appealing.
The concert, which was of a high standard, was something of a lovefest. Singers of international reputation took the opportunity to express their support, as did the orchestra and four of the Liceu’s more recent conductors. The house was packed with an exuberant and emotional audience that rose to its feet and cheered and clapped with huge enthusiasm. I am not generally that fond of potpourri events, but this was very different: each singer chose an item that exhibited his or her greatest strength. Among the many scheduled performances, Roberto Alagna chose a little-known aria from The Queen of Sheba by Karl Goldmark that was tailor-made to show off all of his vocal talents in one short burst. Very impressive it was, too. The Hungarian mezzosoprano Ildiko Komlosi flirted wildly with the audience both during and after her lively interpretation of the habanera from Carmen, and French mezzo Karine Deshayes gave a sweet-voiced performance of "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
The four conductors also played to their own strength, and, in excerpts from Wagner’s Meistersingers, Sebastian Weigle, who led the Liceu orchestra from 2004 to 2008, brought back the great pleasure he always gave, especially when conducting Wagner. Bertrand de Billy, alas long gone, brought light and life to the players as they accompanied Ainhoa Arteta (who recently sang a beautiful Musetta here) in 'Perduta, abbandonata', from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. By the way, it was a pleasure to see, rather than just hear, the members of the orchestra, who played on stage for this one night.
There were some surprises, hinted at on the programme but unannounced. The greatest one came just before the intermission when, with huffing and puffing, a piano rose from the orchestra pit, and onto the stage bounded the hyper-energetic Chinese pianist Lang Lang. What a coup for the Liceu workers! Lang Lang, who comes in for boundless praise and a certain amount of criticism for his showmanship, is just about at the top of the international heap at this time. His rendering of Liszt’s La Campanella, almost his signature tune, was dazzling.
There was much more, but no room here to give all the detail. It was, however, very special.
Later in the week came a repeat of an earlier coproduction of the Liceu and the A Coruna Mozart Festival’s Magic Flute. This is an opera that can sometimes be a bit turgid, at least when Papageno is not onstage. But the Barcelona group Els Comediants, who worked with scene and costume designer Joan Guillen, got it exactly right. One of the clever decisions was to make Papageno the central figure whenever possible, which pepped everything up. The singing was competent, with an endearing Joan Martin-Royo as Papageno, a dignified Georg Zeppenfeld as Sarastro, Pavol Breslik as Tamino and Susanna Philips as Pamina. Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night, sang her brief but very demanding role forcefully. Alas, there is not much anyone can do to add spark to the limp personalities of Tamino and Pamina or the severely uncharismatic Sarastro, however beautiful the music. But in this production, the mise-en-scene triumphed, with a light but elegant touch.
One minor aside, which has nothing to do with this production: until now, I had never noticed just how anti-feminist the libretto is. Not once, but several times, there are references to the foolishness and ineducability of women. Somebody, whether the writer of the original tale or the subsequent librettist, was evidently having a bad time with his wife!
There are only three performances of Magic Flute on the Liceu schedule this season, but if you move quickly, you could still make the last one on Sunday, April 28th.