Beauty is back

It’s terrible to suggest that anyone might be in need of a facelift, but one of the world’s opera grande dames, the Teatro Colón, was topping that list. Making its 1908 debut with Verdi’s Aida, this Argentine beauty has now been nipped and tucked, and her return to the public with La Bohéme tied in perfectly with Argentina’s bicentenary celebrations in May.

But the Colón hasn’t exactly had a smooth ride – ever. Let’s go back to the beginning. Although now a gleaming and fully-functioning landmark in downtown Buenos Aires, its stunning dome winking at the high-rises beside it, the theatre was originally built on the Plaza de Mayo. Opening with a flourish in 1857 to La Traviata, Argentina’s most famous square was only home to the Colón for 31 years – Banco Nación’s headquarters now occupies that space.

Its second inauguration at the current Cerrito Street location was supposed to coincide with the 400th anniversary in 1892 of America’s discovery – but that wasn’t to be. Architect Francisco Tamburini and his team had a two-year deadline, and the cornerstone was laid on May 25, 1890, but Tamburini died a year later. His partner Victor Meano, the mastermind behind the domed Palacio del Congreso (Congress Palace), was his natural successor, but in 1904 he was murdered. His death, combined with that of Angelo Ferrari, the Italian businessman financing the project, meant that funds ran out almost immediately. And so Belgian Jules Dormal took on the white elephant, and made his mark on the interior with a definitive French style. The entrance steps come from white Carrara marble, the grand hall is made of Rosso Verona marble, the handrails are Portuguese marble, while the vitraux dome is the pièce de résistance. Only the best would do for this lady.

And only the best have performed there. From Pavlova, Nureyev, and Nijinsky, The Three Tenors, Callas, and Te Kanawa, and Strauss, Honegger, and Stravinsky – the names who have walked up those marble steps to gaze up at the splendid dome, unable to utter a word, are a Who’s Who of music and dance.

The world’s finest opera house, along with Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Colón has undergone surgery several times, yet never a full clean-up service. Extensions were added to flesh out workshops and rehearsal studios, but no operation has been as dramatic as this last one. The city government’s original ‘master plan’ in 2006 involved structural restoration, but Mayor Mauricio Macri decided on a facelift across the board to the tune of US$100 million – the most expensive heritage restoration in Argentina’s history – in order to improve both the building’s structure and to bring it up to date technologically. Not just a facelift, but an entire body lift.

Macri – who took charge of the master plan in early 2008 – and his predecessor Jorge Telerman have come under scrutiny, namely with regards to funding, which has been interrupted to say the least. Operations were supposed to be led without much song or dance, but Macri insisted on putting the project’s management out to tender. Any previous irregularities were pushed under the table, but bringing in a manager failed to pave a smooth path; the city mayor then dreamt up a special projects unit to oversee the master plan’s manager. This new body came under the Ministry of Urban Development’s remit, turning the Colón into a political weapon.

With restoration teams being shipped in and out at every town hall change, and the need to address winning bidders’ unrelated outstanding debts before they could start work, the refurbishment has taken far longer than expected. But this is just another blip in the Colón’s history – if her overhaul had gone smoothly, well, it just wouldn’t be the Colón, would it?

The Argentine National Symphony Orchestra brought matters to a close in October 2006, so it has taken the best part of four years of blood, sweat, and debts paid to reopen – although complementary buildings neighbouring the Colón won’t be completed until 2011. But the Colón has shed the scaffolding and bandages protecting her and is back, fresh-faced and wrinkle-free – and it was worth the wait.

The official gala inauguration took place on May 24 to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (Act 3) and Puccini’s La Bohème (Act 2), with the latter officially opening the 2010 season. But a sneak preview of Beethoven’s Ninth on May 6 for everyone involved with the restoration had the mops and buckets out, because the tears of a full house were falling thick and fast. When Carlos Vieu stepped out to become the first conductor in four years to lead the Colón’s in-house orchestra, eyes glistening, he raised both hands to the ceiling mural, which was looking as fresh as the day it was unveiled in 1908. Then the real test began. How would she fare acoustically?

Perfectly, is the answer. Granted, the second row is not an ideal seating placement although perfect for witnessing the musicians’ raw emotions on such a momentous occasion in the Colón’s blemished history. When hair hit strings, when soprano Paula Almerares’ first note emerged, a rush of prickly energy soared upward within. A crystal-clear sound, as dazzling as the hundreds of bulbs working hard in the breathtaking chandelier, combined with an immaculate, if hindered, restoration, means the Teatro Colón is back once more.

First published in Oryx, the Qatar Airways inflight magazine, in June 2010

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