Now a National Monument, Madrid's Opera House dominates the Plaza de Oriente
From its inauguration in 1850 through to the present day, the theatre has been the subject of constant alterations, political changes, construction problems and a succession of renovations. It has been the scene of lyric productions but has also played host to parliamentary sessions and has even been used as a dance hall during the last century and a half. When it reopened in 1997, it once again became, as Queen Isabel II originally intended it, the home of opera in Madrid.
In 1818, Madrid City Council commissioned Master Architect Antonio López Aguado to design the future Teatro Real. However, construction suffered a serious of delays and setbacks, just once of which stopped work on the project for a full thirteen years.
Throughout its long and varied life, the Teatro Real has not just been the venue for artistic stage performances. It has also been a gunpowder store, a parliamentary debating chamber and was used as an improvised barracks during the Spanish Civil War. Its intended function was originally announced on 7 May 1850, when a Royal Decree was issued granting six months to complete its construction, in the hope that it could be inaugurated on the day on which Queen Isabel II, a great opera lover, celebrated her birthday.
Finally, after an investment of 42 million reals, this grand opera venue officially opened its doors on 19 November 1850, and the crème de la crème of Madrid society turned out in celebration. Donizetti's La Favorita was the work chosen to inaugurate the theatre, with the contralto Marieta Alboni among the cast.
For more than seventy years, the Teatro Real occupied a prominent place on the European circuit, thanks to the succession of great performers who graced its stage. In 1863, Giuseppe Verdi himself arrived to complete the final preparations for the first performance of his opera La forza del destino with a cast that included Lagrange and Fraschini.
From 1868, following the exile of Isabel II, the theatre's name was changed to Teatro Nacional de la Ópera, regaining its "Royal" name with the return of the monarchy in the person of Alfonso XII. The theatre was directed by a succession of impresarios for several decades, surviving a fire in 1867 and a partial collapse in 1925, the period when Miguel Fleta and Matilde Revenga triumphed in La bohème, the last opera to be performed at the theatre before it finally closed.
After renovations directed by Juan Manuel González Valcárcel, the Teatro Real reopened its doors in 1966 as a Concert Hall, firstly as the home of the Spanish National Choir and Orchestra and then as the headquarters of the RTVE Choir and Orchestra, though the building was not declared a National Monument until 1977. As time went on, further thought was given to returning the theatre to its original function. A National Music Auditorium was built for the performance of symphonic works, and in 1997 the Teatro Real once again became the home of opera in Madrid.
It is difficult to identify any dominant architectural style at the Teatro Real, given the many restorations and uses to which the building has been subjected. The first project, designed by López Aguado y Moreno, settled for a hexagonal building with two façades. The main façade (historically reserved for the royal family) is the circular one that dominates the Plaza de Oriente. The second and slightly less grandiose façade looks out onto the Plaza de Isabel II.
The final phase in the theatre's restoration also faced serious problems, which included the collapse of the central lighting structure in the auditorium. Francisco Rodríguez Partearroyo inherited the project from González Valcárcel and introduced some important modifications which excited a lively debate about the aesthetic and structural changes being made.
Finally, on 11 October 1997, the Teatro Real reopened its doors as an opera house. The new roof solved the acoustic problems and provided space for rehearsal rooms, but the real jewel of the building is the stage area, whose 1,472 square metres and 18 articulated platforms provide the required space for complex scene changes and can be arranged in a large variety of ways to accommodate different requirements both on stage and in the orchestra pit. The auditorium is fully equipped to allow audiences to enjoy the show in the greatest comfort while retaining historical details such as the drop curtain and exact reproductions of the decorated ceilings and boxes installed in 1850.
With a seating capacity of between 1,748 and 1,854, depending on staging requirements, the theatre has 28 boxes on its different floors, along with eight proscenium boxes and a Royal Box that extends to twice the height of the others. In contrast to these, the seating area known as Paraíso is the highest and the one that has grown most since the theatre's original construction, though its view of the stage has never suffered.
The only floor devoted exclusively to the general public is La Rotonda, which runs all the way round the building. It includes four large salons, all of which are decorated in different colours and house some National Heritage items and pieces from the Prado Museum. The lamps were manufactured especially for the theatre by the Real Fábrica de la Granja. Each of these salons has been given the name of the street that can be seen from its windows: Carlos III, Vergara, Arrieta and Felipe V.
Since its reinauguration on 11 October 1997 with two works by Manuel de Falla, the ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat) and the opera La vida breve (A Brief Life), the Teatro Real has gradually increased the number of operas produced in-house, though this has not stopped it continuing to stage outstanding foreign productions. The new Teatro Real's premier night was celebrated that same month of October with its own production of Divinas palabras (Divine Words), an opera by Antón García Abril, starring Plácido Domingo.
The presentation of the theatre's own new productions and the restaging of its most successful offerings, along with the invitations extended to foreign companies, spring from the theatre's desire to attract new audiences while at the same time meeting the demands of the most loyal opera-lovers.