Teatro Colon: Marble, Music and Turmoil
During the 1890s, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world and its capital city, Buenos Aires was considered the "Paris of South America." No sophisticated, cosmopolitan centre of that era could be regarded as truly urbane without an impressive opera house. The Teatro Colon was constructed to fill that bill.
Building the Teatro Colon was a long, drawn-out process. The cornerstone for the theatre was laid in 1890 and the government anticipated a construction period of no more than 30 months. Everyone in Buenos Aires believed that the inauguration would be held on the 12th of October, 1892, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America. The project got off to a bad start when the head architect, Italian Francesco Tamburini died suddenly in 1891. His assistant Vittorio Meano took over, reviewed Tamburini's blueprints and made some revisions to the original plans. "The genre we have adopted for the Colon Theatre cannot be called a style," he stated. "It has characteristics of the Italian Renaissance, the good planning and solidity of German architecture and the decorative charm and variety of French architecture."
While Meano's confident outlook may have been reassuring to the officials looking over his shoulder, events in his personal life interfered with the progress of his grand plan. His valet, who was implicated in a love triangle involving Meano, shot the architect in his own residence. It was now 1904, the building was still unfinished, and financial difficulties were slowing the construction. Back to square one.
A Belgian architect Jules Dormal was hired to continue the job and oversee the interior decoration of the building. On May 25, 1908 the inaugural performance - Guiseppe Verdi's opera "Aida" - was held at Teatro Colon.
The interior of the Teatro Colon is a magnificent combination of marble, gold leaf, mosaic tiles, and faux finishes. The foyer is dominated by a wide Carrara marble staircase leading up to the main auditorium.
Two rows of curved balusters support balustrades made from yellow marble imported from Siena, while the twin banisters terminate with ornate lions' heads carved from pink Portuguese marble. At the top of the stairs, the entry to the auditorium is flanked by rose-coloured marble columns from Verona. Black accents at the bases and capitals of the columns are carved in Belgian marble, and the floor of the foyer is patterned like a carpet in minute mosaic tiles imported from Venice.
The skylight above the foyer is a huge stained glass window, made in Paris by Gaudin & Cie in 1907, a spectacular design based on allegorical figures drawn by M. Freider.
Red Velvet and Brocade
The grand auditorium is designed in the shape of an elongated horseshoe reminiscent of 19th century opera houses in European centres. The scale, however, makes this an exceptional space for both performers and members of the audience. The stage measures 34.50 x 35.25 metres and is slightly slanted to permit good sight lines, even from the stalls. A revolving disc in the centre of the stage allows for quick changes of scenery. The red velvet curtain, made in France, is so heavy that it requires two stagehands to help bear the weight when it is lowered. The acoustics in the Teatro Colon are excellent, no matter where you happen to be sitting. To help make sound dispersion and clarity exceptional, the theatre seats are stuffed with horsetails, and the boxes are draped with curtains made from thick brocade fabric.
From the Stalls to Paradise
The seating arrangement for the theatre includes the main floor stalls, three levels of box stalls, the cazuela, where women may stand, the tertulia, where men may stand, and the upper circle appropriately named Paraiso (Paradise) where men and women may stand together. There are 2,487 seats, but some performances have drawn a crowd of 4000 spectators.
The central chandelier weighs five tons and is surrounded by a circular mural made up of 16 painted panels by Raul Soldi (1905-1994) depicting characters from the Commedia dell'Arte. There's also a hidden platform near the ceiling that can hold a few singers and musicians. This elevated performance space is used when an opera libretto requires divine intervention in the form of a voice from heaven.
Renovation and Controversy
The Teatro Colon was closed for renovation in November, 2006. The expectation was that an 18 month overhaul would be required to repair and renew the interior of the building, revamp sound and lighting equipment, improve acoustics and safety standards, and expand the workshops and rehearsal spaces that are located below the theatre. At a cost of 100 million dollars, this was the largest renovation budget to be spent on a single building in Argentina's history.
The project was delayed and controversy grew surrounding the practices of the renovation team. Furniture, props and other items belonging to the theatre went missing or were packed carelessly in large containers that allowed valuable items to deteriorate. One antique couch from Teatro Colon ended up at a flea market! When theatre director, Pedro Pablo Garcia Caffi fired 450 workers during the renovation period, there was an outcry from labour organizations.
Teatro Colon opened its doors again on May 24, 2010, in time for the celebration of Argentina's bi-centennial, but even this auspicious occasion was marred by political controversy. President Cristina Kirchner refused to attend the gala performance, as she had been recently insulted in the press by the Mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri.
The musicians of the Buenos Aires Philharmonic Orchestra were the next group to raise issues with the theatre management and their grievances disrupted the season's programming. In 2011 the musicians went on strike, demanding a 40% increase in their salaries and a bonus to cover instrument repairs. Performances at Teatro Colon were cancelled at the last minute, even Placido Domingo's appearance scheduled for March was transferred to an outdoor location near the obelisk, instead of taking place inside the theatre. The famous tenor stated that he would not sing in Buenos Aires again, until the ongoing, bitter labour disputes were settled.
Teatro Colon in all its glory
To get a glimpse into the magnificent Teatro Colon is to be transported to an era when Buenos Aires was indeed the elegant, wealthy jewel in the crown of South America. If you are fortunate enough to obtain tickets for a performance, you will undoubtedly be thrilled by the atmosphere, the surroundings and the quality of the sound inside the auditorium. In a 1980 novel entitled "El Gran Teatro" Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Lainen wrote this passage describing his character's entrance to Teatro Colon, " The foyer and the hall received him with a never-ending and victorious flash of lightening. The marbles, the gold and the hangings were made to shine by its sparkle. In front, the staircase laid out in red invited him to ascend towards glory..."
Guided tours are offered Monday to Sunday from 9:00 - 5:30 pm, with groups commencing the tour every 15 minutes.