As one dodges both the ever-present pickpockets and tourists on La Rambla and enters the ornate entrance hall of the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, a subtle excitement simmers in the air. It is noticeably loud inside the hall: the consistent volume owes its stridency to the cacophony of voices belonging to the native patrons of the Liceu, Catalonians who take their seats early and continually check their watches; they are eagerly anticipating the opening bars of Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (Szenen aus Goethes Faust).
Although the Scenes we hear today premièred posthumously (1862), it is unquestionably one of Schumann’s greatest works; composed over the course of nearly ten years, it is a blend of lieder, grand opera, and oratorio. Scenes is the closest Schumann ever came to writing another opera (his first was Genoveva), yet it remains consigned to that special but equally damning space reserved for musical works known mostly by connoisseurs. Indeed, the work's eclectic collection of performers—nine soloists, choir, orchestra, and children's chorus—undoubtedly contributes to its relative obscurity. Scenes is thus not only a work rarely heard, but also a work rarely played well.
Luckily, conductor Josep Pons maintained expert control (albeit somewhat rigid at times) over the performers for the length of the concert. Notably, the wide range of contrasting dynamics was impressive, as was the keen flair for when to use them: the delicate pianissimos he elicited were not only exceptional for an ensemble of this size, but seemed to come always at just the right moment, sounding neither perfunctory or virtuosic. This remarkable sense of style unbelievably was rampant among every soloist onstage.
Although he had one or two strained moments in his upper range, Michael Volle, as Faust, deserves serious accolades for his beautifully sung phrases that carried the ensemble to a level of consummate dramatic intensity, especially during "Faust’s Transfiguration (Fausts Verklärung)." As Gretchen, Ofélia Sala’s magnificent soprano soared through the hall with a heartfelt poignancy; she shaped every phrase to maintain a striking vocal impression long after she had left the stage. It is tempting to say that Günter Groisseböck stole the show with his animated rendition of Mephistopheles, but it too often bordered on caricature; vocally, however, he was certainly the loudest member of the ensemble, singing over even the most powerful orchestral passages with a ferocious malice. Roberto Saccà played a convincing Ariel, his tenor adapted to the demands of the role perfectly. The sextet of soloists sang extraordinarily; not a single word was lost among any of them. Soprano Susana Cordón was especially effective, however.
The Cor Vivaldi-Petits Cantors de Catalunya sang with a precision that the Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu unfortunately lacked, and produced a pure, heavenly sound. Nevertheless, the opera house chorus compensated for this deficiency with sheer force of sound. Throughout the concert, there was a sense of immediacy and passion in each section of the chorus and orchestra seldom found.
Interestingly, although Barcelona is a tourist destination par excellence, the Gran Teatre del Liceu is not high on its list of major attractions. Ask any local, however, what they think of the theatre and you will be met with passionate raving about its productions and cultural significance. After attending this concert, I am convinced that my Catalonian friends were forcibly understating their case.