Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Teatro Colón Buenos Aires

When I first came to Buenos Aires in 2007, Teatro Colón was closed for restoration. The outside of the theatre was entombed in scaffold and plastic, like a large badly wrapped parcel, water cascaded down the steps from under the wooden doors from massive internal cleaning, as if a bath had overflowed. So Teatro Colón was to remain a hidden secret, containing more hidden secrets just faintly illuminated by the guide book descriptions of its former splendour.

Amongst the top five opera houses in the world, Teatro Colón boasts some of the best acoustics for both theatre and opera. In this it is unique. The cornerstone for the current building was laid in 1889 and the theatre opened in 1908, at a time when massive immigration from Europe singled Argentina out as a distinct rival to the United States of America as one of the world's most prospering countries. The theatre was fabulously ambitious and seats nearly 2,500, making it larger than the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Its restoration over four years, cost in excess of $100- million, involving 1,500 workers, including 130 architects and engineers. The scale of both the theatre and its restoration covered a staggering 60,000 square meters. So how could I resist the invitation to take a tour of this fascinating and hitherto unknown building.

We met at Galeria Güemes, an art nouveau edifice designed by Italian architect, Francesco Gianotti in the centre of Buenos Aires at Calle Florida 165. Galeria Güemes was to be the hors d'oeuvres for the main course of Teatro Colon. The internal doors open to the stairs and lifts soar in steel, bronze and brass detail up towards the huge glass domes way above. It scintillates with opulence and design, colour, beveled glass and sculpture. On the 4th floor, accessed from the second lift, I found Edda reading Marcel Proust's 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu' after her pilates class. Our walk to Teatro Colón represented a short stroll up Calle Lavalle and across Avenida Julio 9. Ahead was the theatre, like a large square palace positioned impressively beyond the 21st lane.

Edda had visited Teatro Colón previously, perhaps several times, and so was to be the perfect guide. Not only did she know about the theatre's history, but she had a sense of its place in history and the culture of the Portenos. After buying our tour tickets and meeting the official guide, we separated from the hub of the group so that I could enjoy Edda's bespoke denouement of the theatre's secrets in Edda's mix of English, French and Castillano.

Entry to the threatre is the first theatrical experience. The entrance hall is opulent beyond opulence, with pink, white and yellow marble from Italy and Portugal, mosaics from Venice, stained glass and mirrors from Paris, sculpture from Italian and Argentine artists and enough gold leaf to make the Bank of England shudder with envy. The ceilings rise to giddy heights surmounted by wonderful frescoes, some original, some restored. The furniture is contemporary with the construction of the threatre - from Paris. My musing was broken by Edda's beckoning as she lifted her skirts to skip up the white marble staircases leading up to the gallery before the auditorium. Here on the first floor was a gallery reminiscent of the best Loire palace, in length, in height, in depth, in glass, in light, in fabrics, in painting and in sculpture. But of course the best lay beyond. Edda walked behind me as I entered, her small light hands across my eyes so that I could not see what awaited. Not until we reached the front rail of the first gallery did she withdraw her blindfold. And there, ahead, spreading out across 2,000 seats in the richest red velvet, with 7 tiers of galleries from auditorium to ceiling, was the threatre. In a horse-shoe shape, the auditorium is surrounded by boxes comprising from 7 to 30 seats. Entry to each one is through wonderful heavy brocade fabric, pulled back and secured to form part of the threatre's acoustic. At the highest level way above the auditorium are seats surrounded by standing for 500 people who, for 30 pesos, would gaze down on the spendour of the threatre and capture glimpses of the stage. Beneath the theatre, extending way out below Avenida Julio 9 are the subteranean passages and rehearsal rooms, one 20 x 20 x 30 metres, the same dimensions as the stage. Above all is the cupola, a massive dome repainted in 1966 by the 20th century Argentine artist Raúl Soldi. It replaced the earlier painting which crashed to the floor following the pre-air conditioning habit of placing ice on the cupola to cool the threatre. And in the centre of the dome was a chandelier containing 700 light bulbs and weighing over 1.5 tons. It will bear the weight of a choir of 17 singers who replicate the ethereal voices from the heavens. Once I had taken in the scope and dimension of the theatre, I was again instructed by Edda to wait by the rail as she vanished through the brocade. A minute later she reappeared, this time in the President's box way over to the side of the stage, where she stepped forward dramatically, now her blonde hair pulled back like Eva Peron, to waive and to blow kisses to her people.

When we left to go out into the sunlight, the noise, the traffic and hubub of the city, Teatro Colón seemed almost like a dream, a secluded moment of fantastic opulence. Our next stop in 600 metres would be Cafe Paulin, Sarmiento 365, which my readers will recognise from last year's blog as the narrowest cafe in Buenos Aires, to sit upright on tall stools tightly pressed against the counter, to eat toastados and salad. Such are the contrasts of this wonderful city.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Virginia Tola

Can you sense it? I have fallen in love! Two nights ago I spent the evening with a beautiful, sensual woman with whom I travelled to the stars and back. Her name is Virginia, and she was born in Santa Fe, Argentina. She is a singer. In fact, a soprano. Her voice is like silk drawn across skin, until she ascends in her almost unlimited register - when one's skin is covered with goose bumps, the silk flies on the wind, and one's heart reduced to jelly.

I have to admit that she and I were not alone, although when she looked penetratingly into my eyes, I felt that we were one. A supporting singer called Placido Domingo was also present for some of the time, as were 149,999 other opera lovers who were levered into 1 kilometre of 20 lanes of Avenida Julio 9th by Obelisco in the centre of Buenos Aires. This was one of the free concerts sponsored by the Capital Federal, attended by the average population of 10 square kilometres of the city. One week ago, Edda had queued for over two hours for the allotted two tickets. Clutching them, she returned to San Telmo triumphantly and waved them beneath my nose, telling me that if I did exactly as she asked, I could share her prize. So after my week of devoted attention, rewarded we made our way on the number 9 colectivo out across the furthest points of Avenidas Independencia, Belgrano, Mayo and Corrientes, arriving at Obelisco in the heart of the city.

Our tickets were in 'sector A' where we arrived 2 hours before the performance; but were still over 80 metres back from the stage. Ahead of us was space reserved for another guest and her friends, about which I will speak later. Alongside our seats were the speakers and huge screens that would be repeated as far as Avenida Cordoba. Once at our seats we stood to gaze across heads that extended behind us further than one could see. This was a pulsating, excited landscape of faces - every age of child to the elderly - from rich Portenos to cartoneros - all expectant - all waiting to witness the opportunity of lifetime - to enrich their lives with beautiful music.

As we sat, talked, and ate nuts coated in creamy toffee from a passing vendor, or occasionally rose to stroll, the hot day drew to a close, the blossom continued to drop from the trees, parakeets flew erratically in small formations to their roosts, and a light cool breeze stirred the air. Edda pulled her cashmere top over her arms and shared her shawl, draping it tenderly across my shoulders. Night began to settle, the ark lights came on and the screens burst into life. Just at that moment, the crowd began to rise, their arms waving in the air. The deafening sound of a helicopter sending whirring paper and leafs high into the sky signalled her arrival. Ahead of us, it touched down and we realised why we were positioned back from the stage. Cristina Kirchner, the President of Argentina, stepped down, just like Eva Peron, and the show was ready to proceed.

The crowd had little time for a half-hearted slow hand-clap before the conductor of the vast Orchestra de Colon entered stage right. The cacophany of tuning ceased and the orchestra launched into a rousing prelude. The crowd, many of whom had spent the day in the city centre for El Dia de la Memoria, 35 years after the abolition of the dictatorship, went silent as the still night air and the magic of the evening commenced.

It would be hard, and is unnecessary to list the pieces performed, or to speak of the richness and diversity of Placido Domingo's voice, shaped by years of character. His charisma needs no further embellishment from me, nor would his wonderful humorous performance be enhanced by my words. But when from the wings the slim body of the beautiful Virginia Tola entered the stage, a spell was spun that would capture each and every heart. For a moment she stood. The conductor looked carefully towards her to await her nod. 150,000 faces looked out with expectation. The orchestra strained awaiting her first note. My heart stood still. Her voice soared. Our lives and appreciation of the female voice were changed for ever. From that moment, in a tangled love afair between me, Virginia and Placido, I, along with thousands of souls, was transported in time and space - away from the crowd - the Obelisco - the gathering gloom - the cares of life: in sunlight, by rich textures, the bright cerise of her dress and the pure gold of her voice.

The varied programme comprised opera, operetta and the popular music of Buenos Aires. It was the latter which finally roused the crowd. 'Besame Mucho', formerly so cheesy, here brought the whole audience to their feet to sing and to hug, and Edda lifted her face towards mine and blew a kiss. It was over two hours later, when Placido and Virginia had sung their last tango and 'Querida Buenos Aires', that the realities of existence were to creep back from where they had been banished. The orchestra, during the second half of the concert conducted by Placido Domingo with an energy that stopped one's breath, took their last bow. The stars departed the stage and the double bass player lowered his stand. In my moment of disorientation, Edda looked searchingly into my face. "Are you alright?", she asked with care and concern. "I'll be fine", I rejoined - knowing that whilst swept by the crowd, arm in arm into Suipacha towards San Telmo, my heart would be pinned for ever to one of life's most magical musical memories.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Late Summer in Buenos Aires

Whilst at Flor de Milonga, the bohemian tango event run by my friends Lucia and Gerry, I felt it. The tall doors were open leading to balconies above the busy street of Independencia, and the fans stirred the air; yet there was a weight that came from the heat and humidity. Dancers drifted from the milonga pista towards the night air to catch the last remnants of a breeze. The energy that was Buenos Aires at night seemed to soften. Then, during the night came the rain, heavy, almost unbearably as it cut through the hot humidity, first fizzing on the broken pavements, then washing them in rivulets and streams. Now, as I sit and write, the morning light is grey and the cloud low. This does not portend well for Placido Domingo's open air concert at Obelisco tonight. Preparations started over two weeks ago, with huge stands, barriers and rows of folding chairs set out over four acres of Avendia 9 de Julio, the 20 lane road that disects the Capital Federal. I suspect that they will remain empty whilst the set will be like a grounded ship in a sea of puddles.

Over the last two weeks Buenos Aires has been sumptuous in sunshine, crystal light and positive energy. It is hard to imagine that late March means the approach of autumn. But across the city, the Jacaranda trees have started to float in pools of blossom as the flowers fell to the ground, mirroring the bright pink canopy. This should have been the sign, and probably was to the Portenos of Buenos Aires. A further sign was the need to pull the thin cotton sheet from the foot of the bed to give comfort as the cool night air breathed through the shutters here in El Sol.

So the season matures and prepares to pass. I sense my last three weeks have started to carry me to my return to Europe. Now, as I listen to the falling rain and the colectivos splashing past, England seems not so distant. Olivia has just passed my door wearing a large plastic sack that sticks to her long, slim, shapely legs, but does not distract from her winning smile as she calls to me. El Sol's roof patio is deserted, save for Delphine preparing breakfast and slipping quickly back to her room. We are like the Jacaranda flowers, still blooming but preparing for the fall back to another reality and our navigation in a world of change.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Cafe life

I am sitting alone in a cafe here in San Telmo. The day is bright and sunny. Rather than the pavement table, I have chosen one by the open window, the casement pushed high and I rest my right elbow on the window ledge so the sun catches my sleeve. Jackie, the waitress smiled a beam, just like the morning sunshine, and without a word exchanged, returned with cafe con leche, two media lunas and a tiny glass of sparking water. She also must have sensed my hunger as the media lunas were joined by two small squares of cake, little gifts that sometimes accompany an unaccompanied coffee.

Today the light is special in the way in which it flashes - with the occasional high passing cloud, and the windows of the passing colectivos. Whilst the city council has sought to address the plumes of diesel smoke emanating from their engines, they have not got on top of the sound. I hear them approach, their engines whine, the brakes squeal, the doors bang, and the gear change is many decibels too late as they scream away from the bus stop. The one opposite as I note is decorated inside with mirrors and plush blinds at the windscreen; the control panel is covered in simulated fur. The driver adds to the noise with his transistor radio that is playing tango. It is now departing with a flurry of activity, and as it shakes and screams off, there are more flashes of light from a dozen rattling windows and the eyes of crowding, standing passengers.

Here inside the cafe is relatively peaceful. The oak panels are dark as are the table tops which display large paper placemats and a chrome container of the most fragile tissues bearing the cafe logo. The cafe con leche is hot and strong, and the media lunas deceptively sweet. I dip one into my coffee and taste Buenos Aires. I sip the sparkling water, which effervesces on my tongue and gives intensity to the coffee. Around me, just as in the street outside, is all of San Telmo society - the tradesmen, the tourists, the shop workers, the street workers, the lovers, the retired, simply meeting to chat.

It tells me what I most miss about Buenos Aires when I return to England. It is the natural contact between people who live to share their thoughts, views, worries and delights. I watch the touches, the smiles, the caresses, the gestures and the kiss. Opposite, two elderly men rise from their table, their small cups of cortado empty, and they hug - an embrace that speaks of parting with respect and affection, of shared past and wishes for the future. It is both strong and tender, and utterly un-self conscious. In leading our lives, we still have a lot to learn from other cultures, connections and ages. Perhaps now is the time to put away the the cyber contact and to feel something real. So, as you close my blog today, sense the hug like a breath and feel the value of something very real.

Saturday, 5 March 2011


In glorious summer sunshine, days have a habit of slipping quietly into weeks; and so it is since I last wrote on my blog. But today, there is something very special to tell you. So, sit up and listen to my latest tale.

Eva and I met on the corner of Humberto Primo and Chacabuco. She is to visit her friends Hippolato y Katerina and I have been invited. Before we met, her instruction to me was to bring a towel, wear little, and be prepared to strip. My mind flashed, as it would, over roof-top swimming pools or sun-drenched beaches, but such are rather rare here in Buenos Aires. So tonight was to be a surprise and I did as instructed.

The carnival bands were already meeting up, with city buses decanting dancers and singers into Chacabuco for the short walk through to San Juan. They were gaudy and noisy, with loud shouts, trumpets, and drums. Carnival seems to last continuously from February through to March, with parades and pagents, and drumming through to the early hours of the morning. Yes, you need to be young at heart to survive carnival.

But as the dancers gather, we slip by, to stop at an almost invisible doorway set back in Chacabuco. Eva presses the bell and after what seems an age, Hippolato arrives to give us entry down the long, wide, green corridor that leads to small apartments occupied by the poorer families of San Telmo. Hippolato is not tall, but his strong Mexican Indian features draw the eye, as does the way he moves. He is like a cat, pinching the ground as he walks, his long jet black hair tied into a tail which flows as he walks, just as his loose Indian trousers catch the slight breeze.We quickly arrive at double doors that lead to a small enclosed court yard. And there is the secret of the evening: the temazcal.

Here, I suspect that I need to hold your hand. A temazcal is a Mexican sauna. Hippolato has already woven slim bamboo canes into a structure that resembles something between a tepee and an igloo. It is low, with a circular frame, sufficient to seat four, and a domed roof that rises from the tiled floor. In the corner of the court yard are animal skin to seal the temazcal, and a brazier of hot rocks. These are volcanic stones from Popocapteptl and are glowing white hot.

We greet. Katerina, Hippolato's young wife holds their baby who beams on the arrival of strangers. Water and fresh fruit are offered and we sit on chairs and stools to watch the last points of construction of the temazcal. Now Hippolato seals it, with heavy rocks to hold the skins and large sheets of plastic thrown over to contain the humidity. Gently, we are invited to leave our clothes to be cleansed with incense vapours which rise from a hot rock placed in a large goblet. Each of us in turn is covered in gentle swirls of aromas, and then invited into the temazcal. We sit on towels and the hot rocks follow us, piled by the doorway straight onto the tiled floor. In one corner is a large bowl of basil; in another, a flask of hot anise water which will be spashed from a large bunch of basil leaves over the hot rocks causing scalding aromatic steam to rise and fill the structure.

As the temazcal commences, Hippolato incants mother earth and thanks her for her blessings.
“Agua mi sangre, Tierra mi cuerpo, Aire mi aliento, Y Fuego mi espíritu.” “Water my blood, Earth my body, Air my breath, And Fire my Spirit.”
The moment is charged with energy. Silence falls as the temperature soars. Now the only sound is of Katerina's baby suckling. His first temazcal was at the age to 9 weeks, so he is a veteran, whilst Eva and hold our knees, feeling the humidity rise, tasting the basil and fennel at the back of our throats in a wonderfully hot and pleasurable process. With more water, further clouds of scalding aromatic steam rise into the tepee and the temperature and humidity rise. The incantation was accompanied by songs and blessings; the process being repeated three times over about an hour, with a short moment of fresh cool air whilst the hot stones were refreshed. When the heat gets too strong, we take handfuls of basil leaves and hold them to our noses, or press them against our bodies. It is totally fabulous as an experience and also as a sensation. Afterwards we take a cool shower and, still naked, feast in the court yard on cheese, olives, home made sun-dried tomatoes, bread and water.

Later,Eva and I return, rising up Chacabuco towards the sound of the carnival. We have left our green oasis and walk towards the bustle of San Telmo. Our skin feels soft and our faces fresh, our step is light. Parting, we return to our private worlds, but feel changed. This experience has been both physical and spiritual - yet another step along the wonderful, wild and free journey of life in Argentina and South America.