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Fabled Colon Gets $100 Million Revamp for Argentina Jubilee

The illuminated exterior of the Teatro Colon
The illuminated exterior of the 2,478-seat Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The opera house will reopen on May 24 after a three-year restoration. Photographer: Arnaldo Colombaroli via Bloomberg

May 20 (Bloomberg) -- Luciano Pavarotti once described the acoustics of the Colon Theater in Buenos Aires as so perfect that they challenge singers because “if one does something wrong, it is noted immediately.”

Music lovers can judge the sound quality for themselves next week, when the 2,478-seat opera house reopens after closing more than three years ago for restoration.

While as many as 1,200 builders and craftsmen worked simultaneously on reconditioning the Carrara marble staircase, gold-leaf detailing and statue-studded façade of the 102-year-old building, the most complicated part of the $100 million renovation was to preserve the acoustics, according to project manager Andres Schulman.

“Each time new curtains, seats or carpets were installed in the main hall, the sound had to be tested to ensure it was protected,” Schulman said during a tour of the building.

Schulman’s efforts will be put to the test on May 24 at a staging of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” part of Argentina’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of its revolution against Spanish rule. A joint performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott is scheduled for June.

This year’s opera season, which ends in December, includes Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Massenet’s “Manon” and Verdi’s “Falstaff.” The Colon also stages ballets and concerts.

La Boheme

Pavarotti performed as the young lover Rodolfo in “La Boheme” at the Colon in 1987. His remarks on the sound quality are immortalized on the theater’s Web site, in its pamphlets and in an exhibition celebrating the great artists who have performed there. Everyone from Enrico Caruso and Arturo Toscanini to Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi made the long trip to Argentina. Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky pirouetted on the grand stage.

Pavarotti wasn’t alone in his praise of the sound quality. Leo Beranek, an engineer and former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, surveyed conductors and music critics for his book “Concert Halls and Opera Houses: Music Acoustics and Architecture.” Colon ranked among the top five.

Construction of the theater took 18 years under three different architects. The first was Francesco Tamburini, an Italian who died in 1891. He was succeeded by Vittorio Meano, an assistant and fellow countryman who was murdered in 1904. Belgian architect Jules Dormal finished the job.

The theater finally opened on May 25, 1908, with a gala performance of Verdi’s “Aida.”

No More Dancing

Over time, the state of the 58,000-square-meter (624,000-square-foot) building deteriorated. Balconies overlooking the 16-lane 9 de Julio Avenue were blocked off, walls suffocated under as many as 10 coats of paint, bronze ornaments got lathered with floor polish, and carpets were stuck to the floor with cement.

“The theater was mistreated for years,” Schulman said.

Though renovation began nine years ago, performances continued until the building was closed to the public in 2006. Buenos Aires owns the Colon and the city’s mayor, Mauricio Macri, mandated that the work be done in time for the bicentennial celebrations, which include a soccer match between Argentina and Canada, open-air pop concerts and official parades.

One unusual feature that has been preserved is the Colon’s movable floor. Normally at a slope to improve viewing, the boards are hinged so that they can be leveled to create a dance floor for carnival festivities.

“Hopefully they won’t be used for dances anymore,” said Schulman.

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