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A Brief History of Teatro Colon [Buenos Aires]

The top opera house in all of South America is the Teatro Colón (Columbus Theater) of Buenos Aires, Argentina. It took more than 20 years to build, finally opening to the public on May 25, 1908. Since then it has continued to draw the greatest opera singers in the world to what some have called The Forgotten Continent, mainly because it is such a great distance from major opera houses in Europe and North America.

The Teatro Colón was constructed during a time when Argentina was one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The current building is actually the second opera house in Buenos Aires to bear this name. The original Teatro Colón, located on the Plaza de Mayo, opened in 1857 with the Argentine premiere of La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, a mere four years after the opera had enjoyed its world premiere at La Fenice in Venice, Italy. This first venue boasted 2,500 seats and remained the city’s primary opera house for close to 30 years. The age of the first building, plus the desire to build a more opulent showcase, provided the impetus to create this successor that occupies an entire city block and has its main entrance on Libertad Street.

The current building, seating 2,700 patrons, was designed to emulate the famous Teatro alla Scala (La Scala) of Milan, Italy. Early critics insisted the Argentine version actually possessed better acoustical properties than its European counterpart. Although construction began in 1889, numerous setbacks served to seriously delay the completion of this new Teatro Colón. The primary architect, Francesco Tamburini, died less than two years after the cornerstone was laid. His pupil and successor, Vittorio Meano, was killed in 1904, followed not long thereafter by the death of the Italian businessman who had provided much of the funding for the building, Angelo Ferrari.

The first production in the new house was also a Verdi opera, Aida, presented by a touring Italian company that included Lucia Crestani in the title role and Amadeo Bassi as Radames. The next performance was Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, starring baritone Titta Ruffo. The first season also featured such legendary singers as Feodor Chaliapin in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, plus the world premiere of Aurora by Argentine composer Hector Panizza.

The continuing list of world-class singers and conductors to have graced the stage and the podium (respectively) of Teatro Colón are a veritable Who’s Who of opera. In particular, legendary soprano Maria Callas sang many of her most famous bel canto roles in this house. The theater has also served as an effective platform for homegrown opera singers; some of them have gone on to extraordinary careers, such as José Cura and Marcelo Alvarez. Other Argentine citizens who performed at Teatro Colón before enjoying recognition on the stages of the world have included cellist Sol Gabetta, pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, ballet stars Jorge Donn and Paloma Herrera, and renowned tango composer and bandoneon (accordion) player Ástor Piazzolla.

The management team of Teatro Colón began a lengthy restoration process in late 2006, mostly to correct the disrepair the building had suffered during years of neglect due to several economic collapses and changes in government. The exterior has since been returned to its former grandeur, and interior features such as the French-made stained glass windows and Italian pink marble staircases have been fully refurbished. The final opera performed prior to its temporary closing was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov on October 28, 2006. This remodeling took four years to complete, double the original estimate, and cost US$100 million. The Grand Reopening, set to coincide with Argentina’s bicentennial festivities, took place in May 2010 with a gala performance of excerpts from the Puccini opera La bohème and the ballet Swan Lake by P.I. Tchaikovsky.

Source by Paul Siegel

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