BARCELONA — Music was not what I expected to experience so vividly when I made my first visit to Barcelona. Oh, sure, there is music I associate with the Catalan capital, such as the song “Barcelona” from the Sondheim musical Company (it’s a morning-after-lovemaking duet by the protagonist Bobby and April, a flight attendant who’s got a plane to Barcelona to catch), or another duet of the same title but much more over the top in the performance by Montserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury that became the anthem of the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics.
Architecture was what I expected to be wowed by in Barcelona, and that was certainly true of the astonishing modernist works of Antoni Gaudí, whose surrealistic, deeply spiritual aesthetic dominates the city. Exhibit A: the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, his towering “Bible of stone” that broke ground in 1883 and is still very much a work in progress almost a century after the architect’s death. Sagrada Familia is a bustling tourist destination, and the cathedral’s mad grandeur can be overwhelming.
Of the many Gaudí creations in Barcelona, I most enjoyed La Pedrera (also known as Casa Milà), an eight-story building completed in 1912, whose rooftop is populated by large sculpted figures with an uncanny resemblance to the Storm Troopers and even Darth Vader in Star Wars. (You can also see these on the walls of Sagrada Familia.) The Pedrera has been used to striking effect in movies, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger and Woody Allen’s Vicki Cristina Barcelona. I have since come across an amazing documentary made by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara and titled Antoni Gaudí. The hourlong film has no narration and an atmospheric score by Toru Takemitsu (heard in video above) that reflects the camerawork weaving in and around the architect’s designs.
Architecture also played a role in my exploration of music in Barcelona, which took me in late November to a pair of the city’s leading performing arts institutions, the Gran Teatre del Liceu opera house and the Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall. Neither the Liceu nor the Palau are by Gaudí, but they add their own special panache to the city’s dazzling architectural profile. Both are among the most elegant music venues I’ve been in, and their programming was enticing.
At the opera, the heralded Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen made her role debut as Giorgetta in Il tabarro, the first part of Puccini’s Il trittico, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the triple bill. At the Palau, the German violinist Isabelle Faust led a stunning contemporary chamber music program, including an epic performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
The Liceu is on Barcelona’s famed La Rambla, a leafy pedestrian boulevard that runs between the heart of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. Ten years after the company was founded at another location, the opera house opened at its current site in 1847. It was rebuilt after two fires, the latest in 1994, with a restoration that retained the traditional U-shaped theater. The main floor and five tiers seat about 2,300, topped by an ornate ceiling and dome. This venue felt like the ideal place in which to take in a performance by Davidsen, who has been regarded as the next great diva for a while now, often likened to Birgit Nilsson.
Puccini may seem to be unexpected territory for Davidsen, who has made her mark in heavier repertoire of Wagner and Richard Strauss. She will make another Puccini debut in the title role of Tosca in a concert version to open Norway’s Bergen International Festival in May, so Giorgetta represented an interesting step in her career. Plus, she got to spend a month in Barcelona.
Tabarro is not performed a lot, and because it is such a potboiler it may be underrated, but the Liceu’s presentation of it and the triptych’s two other one-act works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, in a Lotte de Beer staging that originated at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper, came as a revelation. Davidsen was the definition of luxury casting in the 53-minute opera, set on the Seine amid swirling mists, playing a barge-master’s unhappy wife whose affair with the stevedore Luigi (Brandon Jovanovich) leads to murder. Their steamy love duet was richly colored, and Davidsen displayed a lustrous burst of vocal splendor in Giorgetta’s nostalgic aria to the good life in suburban Paris.
Davidsen was not the only soprano who made a powerful impression in de Beer’s dark production, which deployed a massive, revolving, funnel-shaped set for all three operas, each of which has death as a theme. Ermonela Jaho completely inhabited the tragic heroine of Suor Angelica in a tour de force of passion, especially in “Senza mamma,” Angelica’s sorrowful scene with the unforgiving Princess, sung by Daniela Barcellona. (Jaho is singing Violetta in La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera through Jan. 26.) A third soprano, Ruth Iniesta, turned in a lovely rendition of the ever-popular “O mio babbino caro” in Gianni Schicchi. Throughout Trittico, Mälkki, conducting her first Puccini opera, brought a deft sense of theatrical nuance to the orchestration.
Going to the Palau was a fortunate coda to that night at the opera. On short notice my wife and I bought tickets for a concert given on the eve of our departure — and thank heaven for that, or we would have missed this jewel box of a hall on a narrow street in the city’s Gothic Quarter. Designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and opened in 1908, it is an Art Nouveau riot of rose-patterned ceramics and intricate mosaics, Doric columns and sculpture, marble staircases and sparkling chandeliers, stained-glass walls and a skylight depicting the sun, and much more. All the glass probably doesn’t help the acoustics of the hall, which seats about 2,200, but it was so visually bedazzling that everything sounded great to me.
Faust was on a Spanish tour with an illustrious ensemble — pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, clarinetist-composer Jörg Widmann, and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. In the first half of the program, they gave bracing accounts of challenging works by Berg (Four Pieces for clarinet and piano), Ravel (Sonata for violin and cello), and Elliott Carter (Epigrams for violin, cello, and piano), with Widmann performing his solo Fantasia for clarinet. The second half was occupied by the eight-movement Quartet of Messiaen — who, like Gaudí, was devoutly Catholic. There were virtuosic performances all around, but what most lingers with me is Faust’s violin solo in the finale, a beguiling blend of songful expressiveness and consummate technical security. It was the perfect end to our time in Barcelona.