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.

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