The Event-packed annals of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Jaume Tribó – El Liceu – April 12th

The pointer maestro Jaume Tribó in his shell during a performance of Il burbero di buon cuore, Barcelona 2012

All the world’s leading opera houses have shown an interest in rediscovering their past. Nearly all the larger ones compiled annals methodically and many published them in the 1930s. The Liceu did not. Even today any researcher or opera-lover looking for a particular date or list of performers or titles is in for a hard time. The reason, perhaps, is that the Liceu was under private ownership: it was the last big private theatre and was run by one firm after the other, none of which left anything behind. When occasionally data were compiled, the initiative always arose, not from the Liceu itself, but from private individuals, each of whom took a different approach. The annals of an opera house should cover just three subject areas: dates, titles and performers. Under each heading the research, and consequently the information as well, should be exhaustive. Nor should it be confined to operas – as the Scala has done with impunity – but include all the entertainment offered, day by day. Before the second fire which gutted the Liceu (on 31 January 1994), I undertook what already promised to be a slow and laborious task: that of compiling the annals. The work has attained a magnitude far beyond my original expectations.

Though not yet complete, the resulting annals are of gigantic proportions. Suffice it to say that an impressive total of 432 shows were staged during the very first season, 1847-1848. There was something every day. Many Sunday bills included three performances: a concert in the morning, a comedy in the afternoon, and an opera in the evening. Nor did the pace let up in summer and, if ever there was no show on one particular day, it was always the result of happenstance. In the first fourteen years, when the Liceu was housed in its first building, opera was not yet the most frequently performed genre. Only 25% of all shows in the first season were operas. The Liceu was not yet an opera house but a theatre where all genres had their place, first and foremost plays in verse or prose and dance. The most frequent programme was a medley that nearly always comprised a “symphony” — title and composer not specified —, a drama or comedy, an Andalusian-style dance performance and, to conclude, an amusing sketch (“un divertido sainete”), equally devoid of title or author.

The first opera – Donizetti’s Anna Bolena – was not staged until thirteen days after the theatre was inaugurated. The audience was as interested in romantic ballet as it was in opera. Giselle and the great ballets of Cesare Pugni were often labelled “a great, spectacular dance performance” (“gran baile espectaculoso”). The empresarios who put on plays tried to lure the audience with intriguing, spine-chilling titles such as Fabio el novicio (Fabio the novice), La caverna invisible (The invisible cavern) or El bandido incógnito en las ruinas de los templarios (The unknown bandit in Templars’ ruins).

The most curious feature of the shows held in the Liceu’s first building were certain routines which some researchers have considered too lowbrow to bring to light. I refer to the acts used to fill in the intermissions, which were performed by conjurors, equilibrists, magicians, acrobats, tight-rope walkers, trapeze artists, illusionists and others who defy definition. This custom went on till 1861, the year of the first fire.

In some of these routines, the Liceu reached an all-time low. One was the performance in 1851 by a Monsieur Lebeau, an animal imitator, which must be one of the most surprising episodes in the Liceu’s history. Besides mimicking five different birds, he imitated “a piglet’s grunt, a neighing horse, the song (sic) of a dog, and that of a chicken”. According to the reviews, the show was a great success and M. Lebeau even whistled like a canary by way of an encore. Other forms of amusement deserving of mention included improvisations on subjects suggested by the audience, pranks to mark 28 December (the equivalent of April Fool’s Day), when the bill was also written in verse, and Christmas raffles, in which members of the audience could win a live turkey. Here are a few more of the endless list of anecdotes.

  • The contemporary press announced a performance by El trípede (The Tripod) or “three-legged man” (sic).
  • 1850: The Barcelona city councillor in charge of one show refused to authorize an encore of the Rondeña (part of a flamenco dance show), thereby sparking off such violent turmoil that he ordered the show to be interrupted. On leaving the theatre, he was attacked by a group of furious spectators on Carrer de la Boqueria and needed protection from the Catalan police.
  • RIGOLETTO. The premiere of the opera on 3 June was cut short at 10.30 p.m. because of an accident that was “as horrible as it was regrettable”. During her Act III duet with the baritone, soprano Filippina Crescimano rashly went too close to the footlights on either side of the prompter’s box. Her dress caught fire and in her terror she rushed to the back of the stage, thus further fanning the flames. Some of the musicians climbed onto the stage to help her. The baritone Domenico Mattioli finally extinguished the fire by picking up a cloth from a table and wrapping her in it. The curtain dropped and the authorities ordered the performance suspended. Signora Crescimano only suffered slight burns to her right arm. The reviewer for the Diario de Barcelona reassured readers that her face was not disfigured.
  • A lady from Cadiz gave birth to “a bouncing boy” in the corridor behind the stalls. The baby was aptly christened Eliseo.
  • ERNANI. At the start of Act IV, four stagehands fell from a considerable height when the rope that served to raise the curtain broke. While the chorus began singing, the curtain remained half-up and half-down, raising protests from the audience until it was discovered that an accident had occurred and the show was interrupted. One of the men died an hour later and another survived only a few days. An investigation was held and it was decided that the rope must be replaced every four years. Only one of the four, Jaume Goula, fully recovered from his injuries and was able to return to work six months later.
  • On 7 November 1893, just as the new season was getting underway with a performance of Rossini’s William Tell, the opera house was the scene of a bomb attack which caused great consternation in the city. During the recitative that precedes the Act II trio between tenor, baritone and bass, the anarchist Santiago Salvador threw two Orsini bombs into the stalls. They fell in row 13, killing twenty members of the audience. Salvador was executed the following year.
  • The season was due to open with a performance of Mercadante’s IL GIURAMENTO. Rehearsals were already underway when the show had to be cancelled because the Italian soprano, Carolina Ferni, was suffering from a severe cold. As the coach bringing her to Barcelona had crossed the river Fluvià at Bàscara (about 75 miles north of the city), water had flooded into it and the singer, her sister Teresina and other members of the Italian company were all soaked. According to the press report, Signora Ferni was unable to take part in the performance “as a result of the damp conditions she endured on the way”.
  • RIGOLETTO. The tenor Angelo Masini had to do six encores of “La donna è mobile”. It was common practice to demand encores at the time, but to repeat the same number six times was unheard of. The reason for the audience’s insistence was that on each occasion Masini rounded off the piece with a different cadenza.
  • LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, starring the Polish soprano Regina Pinkert. The press reported that “A member of the secret patrol squad dropped the revolver he wore on his belt. On hitting the ground, the gun went off, wounding him in the right foot”.
  • 28-III-1921 MANON by Massenet. On the morning of 28 March, the Diario de Barcelona published a report of the premiere which was to take place that same evening. Fortunately it gave an enthusiastic account of all the singers’ performances.

The attempts made, from the 19th century onwards, to draw up an inventory of the shows staged at the Liceu were all influenced by the notion that the Liceu dedicated itself exclusively to opera, or possibly to opera and ballet. The clear objective of these praiseworthy endeavours was to draw up a list of all the operas performed in their entirety. And it is worth stressing “in their entirety” because throughout the 19th century, performances of operatic music often consisted of an assortment of single acts taken from different titles. The serata d’onore, an evening in honour of some contemporary diva or divo, was another widespread custom which continued into the 1950s. As late as 1952, a performance made up of acts from Fidelio, Tannhäuser and Siegfried was put on to pay tribute to Gertrude Grob-Prandl and Max Lorenz. We would give a distorted view of the Liceu if we were to concentrate solely on operas and ignore these tributes and the many other types of show: the wide array of comedies and dance spectacles organized in the first fourteen years, the great ballets, the Andalusian dance shows such as La sandunga de Triana, La gachona resaláa and El rumbo macareno, the magical comedy shows, zarzuelas, concerts and so on. Moreover, many great artists and ensembles have appeared at the Liceu without taking part in an opera: Carlos Latorre, Bárbara Lamadrid, Pablo Sarasate, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Pau Casals, Heitor Villa-Lobos, John Barbirolli, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Maria Callas (still billed as “Meneghini-Callas”, from the name of her first husband), the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, Igor Markevitch,  Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Lorin Maazel, Lluís Llach, Pierre Boulez, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa, and many more. The list of dancers would be endless but there are a few names we cannot pass over such as Anna Pavlova, Vatslav Nijinski, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

The Liceu has remained active from its official opening on 4 April 1847 right up to the present day and any interruptions were due to exceptional events. On 9 April 1861, for instance, the entire auditorium and stage were destroyed in the first fire but just one year and eleven days later the Liceu reopened in still more sumptuous premises. The famous bomb attack of 9 November 1893 was remembered for generations. Fortunately its memory has faded at last and there are no longer patrons who prefer to sit on the left-hand side of the stalls because the right was “where the bomb dropped”. The next time artistic activities were suspended was during the Civil War (1936-1939), though a few months before General Franco’s troops entered the city, zarzuelas were being staged on a daily basis to create a false impression of “life as usual”.  The second fire, on 31 January 1994, again gutted the entire auditorium and stage, causing life at the Liceu to be put on hold once more. Five years later the opera house had been rebuilt in its present form. And the most recent interruption has been due to the Covid virus, though the Liceu has struggled to maintain part of its programme despite severe restrictions on the size of the audience, which has sometimes been limited to 500.

So we have our building and our permanent orchestra and chorus and can take pride in the great artists who are part of our glorious past and present. We can also congratulate ourselves on our programmes, the fruit of 174 years of history, which reflect the novelties of each successive era. Some people maintain that certain titles that have been staged at the Liceu were unfit for an opera house like ours and should be passed over in silence. We do not agree. We cannot change the past and to ignore it is to bury your head in the sand. Demystifying the Liceu will not rob it of its dignity. Let us also recall that in the 19th century the theatre was frequented, not only by humans, but by cats and dogs who lived there during the day and left when the audience arrived. And there were also a few dogs who came with their masters and mistresses. The day before the official opening, the acting mayor, Valentí Esparó, drew up a motley set of rules including “Dogs may not be brought into the theatre”. The very existence of this ban confirms that people did take dogs to the theatre: besides the stray dogs, there were also dogs who attended the show with their owners. Perhaps the history of the Liceu should include a small section devoted to animals, a sort of bestiary.  In 1858 a “huge dog” fell from the fourth tier during the second act of Rossini’s William Tell and in 1872 “a small dog” did the same, but from the third tier: both were killed. Then in 1875 a cat did credit to the reputation of its species by falling from the fifth tier onto the balustrade round the orchestra pit, bouncing off an unoccupied seat, and fleeing from the stalls miaowing.

You can consult the Liceu Annals here.

Els Divertits annals del Gran Teatre del Liceu

Jaume Tribó – El Liceu – April 12th


Jaume Tribó, el mestre apuntador del Liceu Jaume Tribó al coverol durant un espectacle de Il burbero di buon cuore, Barcelona 2012.

Tots els teatres d’òpera importants del món han tingut interès en conèixer el seu passat. La compilació dels annals és una tasca que tots els grans teatres han  realitzat metòdicament i que molts ja van editar durant els anys trenta del segle XX. El Liceu, no. Encara avui dia l’estudiós o l’afeccionat que vulgui saber una data concreta, una relació d’intèrprets o de títols, ho té difícil. Potser pel fet d’haver estat un teatre privat, l’últim gran teatre privat en el que les empreses se succeïen sense deixar-hi res, la compilació de certes dades no era mai iniciativa del Liceu sinó que la realitzaven particulars, cadascú amb una visió diferent. Els annals d’un teatre s’han de limitar a tres aspectes: dates, títols i intèrprets. En els tres camps la investigació i, en conseqüència, la informació ha de ser exhaustiva. El treball no s’ha de limitar als títols operístics –la Scala ho ha fet impunement– sinó que ha recollir dia per dia la totalitat dels espectacles. Pel que fa al Liceu, ja abans del segon incendi (31 de gener de 1994) vaig començar un treball evidentment lent i laboriós. L’obra cobrava així unes proporcions que en un principi no es preveien.

Els annals que en resulten, encara no enllestits, són de  proporcions gegantines. Remarquem que ja la primera temporada, 1847-1848, comprengué la xifra impressionant de 432 espectacles. N’hi havia diàriament. Molts diumenges s’arribava a fer tres espectacles: concert al matí, comèdia a la tarda i òpera a la nit. El ritme de treball no s’interrompia a l’estiu i els comptats dies sense cap funció ho eren sempre per motius fortuïts. Durant els primers catorze anys d’activitat, que corresponen als del primer edifici, l’òpera no era encara el gènere més representat. A la primera temporada només un 25% de les funcions van ser de caire operístic. El Liceu no era encara un teatre d’òpera; era un teatre en el que hi tenien cabuda tots els gèneres però sobretot el teatre parlat, en vers o en prosa, i la dansa. El tipus d’espectacle més freqüent era una funció mixta formada gairebé sempre per una “simfonia”, de la que no s’especificava ni el títol ni l’autor, un drama o una comèdia, un ball de caire andalús i per acabar “un divertido sainete” també sense títol ni autor.

Fins tretze dies després de la inauguració del teatre no arribà la primera òpera, Anna Bolena de Donizetti. Tant com per l’òpera, el públic s’interessava pel ballet romàntic. Giselle i les grans obres de Cesare Pugni eren qualificades sovint com a “gran baile espectaculoso”. Pel que fa al teatre parlat, les empreses procuraven atraure el públic amb drames esgarrifosos i títols tan suggestius com Fabio el novicio, La caverna invisible o El bandido incógnito en las ruinas de los templarios.

L’aspecte anecdòtic de la primera fàbrica del Liceu, que hom ha considerat vergonyós de desenterrar i fer conèixer, el constituïen els farciments dels entreactes, amb actuacions de prestidigitadors, equilibristes, mags, gimnastes, funàmbuls,  trapezistes, il·lusionistes i altres actuants de difícil catalogació. Això es va mantenir fins el 1861, any del primer incendi.

El Liceu ha tocat fons més d’un cop. Un dels moments més inaudits de la seva història és l’actuació de Mr. Lebeau, imitador de veus d’animals, el 1851; Monsieur Lebeau imità cinc ocells  i  també  “el gruñido del lechón,  el relincho del caballo,  el canto del perro (!) y el canto del pollo”. La crítica diu que va ser tot un èxit; calgué fer el bis del canari. No oblidem tampoc les improvisacions segons temes  suggerits  pel  públic,  les  innocentades  del 28 de desembre —amb les cartelleres escrites en vers–  i les rifes nadalenques quan se sortejaven galls dindi vius entre el públic. De l’inacabable anecdotari escollim algun fets singulars.

  • Les informacions de l’època anunciaven l’actuació d’”El trípede”, “el hombre de tres piernas” (sic).
  • 1850: El “concejal” que presidia l’espectacle no concedeix un bis (la “Rondeña”) i es produeix un aldarull tan greu que mana suspendre la funció. Un cop fora és atacat per un grup d’espectadors enfurismats al carrer de la Boqueria i ha de ser protegit pels Mossos d’Esquadra.
  • RIGOLETTO. La primera representació, 3 de juny, acaba a dos quarts d’onze després del duo de soprano i baríton a l’acte III a causa d’un accident “tan horroroso como lamentable“. La soprano Filippina Crescimano va cometre la imprudència d’acostar-se massa a la bateria encesa a la dreta i a l’esquerra del coverol de l’apuntador. El vestit es va encendre amb una flama de la bateria. Espantada, va córrer cap al fons de l’escenari; això augmentà les flames. Alguns músics van pujar a l’escenari per ajudar-la. El baríton Domenico Mattioli agafà un tapís que tapava una taula i embolcallà la soprano. Així apagà el foc. Va caure el teló i l’autoritat ordenà la suspensió de la representació. La senyora Crescimano només va patir una cremada lleu al braç dret. La crítica del Diario de Barcelona concreta que el rostre se salvà.
  • Una senyora de Cadis pareix “un robusto niño” al corredor de platea. El nen rep el nom d’Eliseo.
  • ERNANI. Al començament de l’acte IV es trenca la corda amb la què quatre homes, anomenats “botadors”, aixecaven el teló i cauen des d’una alçada molt elevada. El teló queda alçat fins la meitat quan el cor ja cantava. El públic protestà fins que es va interrompre la representació i es va tenir notícia dels fets. Un dels quatre va morir una hora més tard i un altre durant els dies següents. L’autoritat investigà l’assumpte i anuncià que la corda s’havia de canviar cada quatre anys. Només un dels quatre, Jaume Goula, es va recuperar de les lesions i va poder treballar un altre cop després de mig any.
  • La bomba del Liceu, 7 de novembre de 1893, fet que va commocionar la ciutat de Barcelona. Inauguració de la temporada 1893-1894 amb “Guillem Tell” de Rossini. Durant l’acte II i en el recitatiu que precedeix el tercet de tenor, baríton i baix, l’anarquista Santiago Salvador llança a la platea dues bombes tipus “Orsini” que cauen a la fila 13 amb resultat de 20 morts. És ajusticiat l’any següent.
  • Per malaltia de Carolina Ferni no es pot inaugurar la temporada amb IL GIURAMENTO de Mercadante, tot i que ja s’havia assajat. Patia un refredat molt fort; al creuar el riu Fluvià a Bàscara (Alt Empordà) l’aigua havia entrat a la diligència que la duia a Barcelona. Es van mullar ella, la seva germana Teresina i altres individus de la companyia italiana. Carolina Ferni no pot cantar IL GIURAMENTO á causa de las humedades que sufrió por el camino”.
  • RIGOLETTO. El tenor Angelo Masini ha de cantar sis vegades “La donna è mobile”. A l’època els bisos eran molt habituals però sis vegades el mateix fragment no s’havia produït mai enlloc. El motiu és que cada vegada Masini cantava una cadència diferent.
  • LUCIA amb la soprano polonesa Regina Pinkert. “Á un agente de la ronda secreta le cayó el revólver de la faja, y al dar en el suelo se le disparó el arma, hiriéndole el proyectil en el pié derecho”.
  • 28-III-1921 MANON de Massenet. Crítica: Diario de Barcelona. La crítica apareix el mateix dia 28 de març al matí quan encara no s’havia fet la primera representació. Afortunadament tractava molt bé de tots els intèrprets.

La pretensió que el Liceu fos un teatre exclusivament d’òpera i, com a molt, d’òpera i ballet, ha influït sempre quan algú, i ja al segle XIX, ha volgut fer un recull dels espectacles representats. Els  bons intents realitzats tenien aquesta clara intenció: la recopilació de les òperes senceres representades. Cal destacar això de les òperes senceres perquè durant tot el segle XIX és molt freqüent l’espectacle d’òpera en el que es reuneixen actes solts de diferents títols. Pel que fa a  la “serata d’onore”, funció d’homenatge al “divo” de torn, el costum s’allargà fins als anys cinquanta del segle passat; encara el 1952 Gertrude Grob-Prandl i Max Lorenz van tenir una funció d’homenatge amb actes solts de Fidelio, Tannhäuser i Siegfried. Ignorar aquest tipus d’espectacle deforma la visió total que voldríem revelar del teatre. Si ens limitem a les òperes senceres  deixem a banda tot el reguitzell de comèdies i ballarugues dels primers catorze anys, els grans ballets, les danses de caire andalús com La sandunga de Triana, La gachona resaláa i El rumbo macareno, comèdies de màgia, sarsueles i concerts. Pel Liceu han passat grans intèrprets que no han intervingut en cap espectacle operístic: Carlos Latorre, Bárbara Lamadrid, Pablo Sarasate, Richard Strauss, Igor Strawinsky, Pau Casals, Heitor Villa-Lobos, John Barbirolli, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Maria Callas (encara com Meneghini-Callas), Filharmòniques de Berlín i de Viena, Igor Markevitch,  Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, Lorin Maazel, Lluís Llach, Pierre Boulez, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa… i pel que fa al capítol coreogràfic, la llista seria inacabable. Entre milers de noms no podem obviar els d’Anna Pavlova, Vatslav Nijinski, Margot Fonteyn i Rudolf Nureyev.

D’ençà la seva inauguració, 4 d’abril de 1847, el Liceu ha mantingut sempre una activitat continuada, interrompuda només per fets excepcionals. El primer incendi destruí totalment la sala i l’escenari el 9 d’abril de 1861; un any i onze dies després tornava a obrir les portes amb un edifici encara més sumptuós. La famosa bomba del 9 de novembre de 1893 ha estat recordada durant generacions; afortunadament fa anys que el record ha estat oblidat; ja no en queden d’espectadors que preferien la banda esquerra de la platea perquè a la dreta “hi va caure la bomba”. L’activitat artística es va tornar a interrompre amb la guerra civil (1936-1939) tot i que uns mesos abans de l’entrada de les tropes del general Franco hi hagué representacions diàries de sarsuela amb el desig de l’aparença d’una falsa normalitat. El segon incendi (31 de gener de 1994), amb la destrucció total de la sala i l’escenari, va interrompre un altre cop la vida del Liceu; en cinc anys el teatre va ser refet com és en l’actualitat. L’última aturada d’activitat artística és la produïda pel virus actual. Amb un aforament molt limitat, alguns cops només a 500 persones, el Liceu ha fet l’esforç de mantenir part de la programació.

Tenim l’edifici, els cossos estables i podem lluir d’un passat i d’un present gloriosos pel que fa a intèrprets. També cal valorar la programació –són 174 anys d’història– amb les novetats de cada època. Algú ha avançat que entre tots els títols que s’han fet al Liceu n’hi ha alguns que semblen impropis d’un teatre com el nostre i no caldria fer-ne esment. No compartim aquest criteri. El passat no es pot canviar i voler-lo ignorar és posar el cap sota l’ala. El Liceu no perdrà la dignitat encara que el desmitifiquem. Recordem que al segle XIX a la sala no hi havia només persones. També gossos i gats que hi vivien de dia i sortien quan entrava el públic. Alguns gossos, però, anaven al teatre amb els amos respectius. El dia abans de la inauguració, l’alcalde accidental Valentí Esparó dictava unes disposicions tan peregrines com “Se prohibe llevar perros”. Aquesta prohibició confirma que, efectivament, els gossos anaven al teatre. No eren gossos solts sinó que els duien els amos. La història del Liceu mereixeria potser un petit apartat de bèsties, un bestiari: el 1858 un “enorme perrazo” queia des del quart pis durant el  segon  acte  de  “Guillem  Tell”  de  Rossini; el  1872 des del tercer pis  ho  feia  “un  perrito” –els dos animals van morir de la caiguda– mentre que el 1875 un gat feia honor a la fama quan del cinquè pis queia damunt de la barana de l’orquestra, rebotava contra una butaca buida i sortia miolant per la platea.

Pots consultar els Annals del Gran Teatre del Liceu aquí