The opulently decorated main hall, the gilded heart of the theatre — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
This is Portugal’s premier opera house, inaugurated in 1793. The Portuguese architect José da Costa e Silva drew on Milan’s La Scala for inspiration to define the exterior, a graceful and carefully proportioned façade exuding noble character.
The theatre is a cherished landmark. But the real beauty of this venerated performing arts venue lies behind its neoclassical frontage. Indeed, the interior is simply astonishing, an outstanding example of gilt-edged rococo opulence that da Costa e Silva modeled on another great Italian theatre: San Carlo in Naples.
The impressive neoclassical facade of the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, located in Lisbon's elegant Chiado neighborhood — Photo courtesy of Lijealso
Naturally, theatre-goers and opera-lovers are able to immerse themselves in this architectural splendor as part of an audience when taking in a show. But what if you find yourself in Lisbon between scheduled performances?
Fortunately, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos has in place a program of guided visits that afford the general public fascinating behind-the-scenes tours of this precious cultural gem.
The theatre's dazzling ceiling, replete with huge chandelier — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Maria Luisa Carles’ English is impeccable. A member of the theatre’s administrative staff, she conducts tours of the opera house, one of several expert guides charged with enlightening visitors interested in finding out more about the late 18th-century building and its function.
There are several different tours to choose from, each designed to highlight a particular aspect of the theatre.
The Artistic Visit provides a production overview, where the emphasis is on the work carried out by the costume, scenery and props departments. The Technical Visit allows access to the stage and orchestra pit, dressing rooms, carpentry workshop and gallery. An unusual Nocturnal Visit takes place after dark and includes the main departments, plus an exterior circuit. There are special arrangements in place for larger tour groups.
Carles’ enthusiasm is genuine and spontaneous. She’ll meet and greet visitors in the foyer before escorting the group into the main hall and the very heart of the theatre.
The royal box, or "Tribuna Real," designed by the Italian Giovanni Appianni — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
This is as dazzling an introduction to any guided tour you’ll ever likely to experience: the decoration is breath-taking! Elliptical in shape, with five tiers of boxes and seats, the salon is a riot of gilded woodwork illuminated by rows of lamps mounted on filigree stems.
The luxurious royal box, or Tribuna Real, is the work of the Italian Giovanni Appiani. Above, a ceiling of fabulous symmetry radiating from a huge chandelier lends depth and perspective.
Scenic opera backdrops, some dating from the 19th century, stored backstage for posterity — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
If you’ve opted for the Technical Visit, you’ll be led backstage, arguably the theatre’s most intriguing area.
“This is of great interest to architects and historians,” announces Carles, indicating towards a mechanical winch housed stage right. “Teatro Nacional de São Carlos is one of the only theatres in Europe to maintain a manual pulley system for backdrops."
And many of those scenic backdrops are stored backstage, some dating from the 19th century, each one identified by the name of the production, among them Tosca, The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro.
The view from one of the boxes high above the stage — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The dizzying view from the fifth tier allows closer inspection of the sculpture that surmounts the royal box and adorns the upper levels. Then, as you’re led downstairs, a diversion takes you inside the Salão Nobre, which dates from 1796. Today, this stateroom hosts intervals and after-show parties.
The tour itinerary doesn’t include the refined café-restaurant located within the building, but which operates independently from the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Perhaps the best way to appreciate its highly regarded menu is to combine a meal with a concert and experience to the full the thrill and excitement of a night at the opera.
The Salão Nobre, a majestic state room that dates from 1796 — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt