Reputedly modelled on the Paris Opéra, San José’s heavily colonnaded, grey-brown Teatro Nacional sits on the corner of Calle 5 and Avenida 2, tucked in behind the Plaza de la Cultura. The theatre’s marbled stairways, gilt cherubs and red velvet carpets would look more at home in Europe than in Central America. You won’t find such impressive elegance anywhere else between here and the Manaus Opera House in deepest Amazonia.
Teatro Nacional’s story is an intriguing one, illuminating the industrious, no-nonsense attitude of the city’s coffee bourgeoisie, who demonstrated the national pride and yearning for cultural achievement that came to characterize Costa Rican society in the twentieth century. In 1890, the world-famous prima donna Adelina Patti was making a tour through the Americas, but could not stop in Costa Rica as there was no appropriate theatre. Mortified, and determined to raise funds for the construction of a national theatre, the wealthy coffee farmers responded by levying a tax on every bag of coffee exported. Within a couple of years the coffers were full to bursting; European craftsmen and architects were employed, and by 1897 the building was ready for its inauguration, a stylish affair with singers from the Paris Opéra performing Faust.
The theatre itself is lavishly done in red plush, gold and marble, with richly detailed frescoes and statues personifying “Dance”, “Music” and “Fame”. The upstairs “salons” are decorated in mint and jade-green, trimmed with gold, and lined with heavy portraits of former bourgeoisie. In the main lobby, look for the mural depicting the coffee harvest (once featured on the five-colón note), a gentle reminder of the agricultural source of wealth that made this urban luxury possible. All in all, the building remains in remarkably good condition, despite the dual onslaught of the climate and a succession of earthquakes. The latest, in 1991, closed the place for two years – until recently, the huge marble staircases on either side of the entrance still had wooden supports strapped onto them like slings. Above all it is the details that leave a lasting impression: plump cherubim, elegantly numbered boxes fanning out in a wheel-spoke circle, heavy hardwood doors and intricate glasswork in the washrooms.
Even if you’re not coming to see a performance, you can wander around the post-Baroque splendour, though you’ll be charged $7 for the privilege (guided tours offered). Just off the foyer is an elegant café serving good coffee, juices and European-style cakes.