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Adding theatrical beauty to a beach holiday - Teatro Sauto in Matanzas, one of Cuba's 5 great colonial theatres

Most make it to Matanzas with only one destination in mind – glorious Varadero and its famed miles of sun-kissed beaches. Many miss out on exploring what lies beyond the soft white sands and would significantly enrich their holiday with a tour of the city, especially if they include a stop at Teatro Sauto, one of the last, still-standing great colonial theatres of Cuba. This regal gem is a must-see landmark; whether you are attending a performance or simply coming to admire its palatial beauty.

Adding theatrical beauty to a beach holiday - Teatro Sauto in Matanzas, one of Cuba's 5 great colonial theatres

Previously, I had sang the praises of the recently refurbished and positively gleaming Teatro La Caridad in Santa Clara, a local symbol and colonial architecture relic that reminds the “santaclarenos” of the greatest city benefactor that ever lived in Cuba; the wealthy person behind its construction, who also in a selfless act of sheer generosity also gave the theatre’s profits to charity.

Today we turn our attention to yet another beautiful colonial theatre of the times, whose origins may not have been as charitable as the former’s but whose size certainly exceeds it, putting at the head of the Cuban trilogy of classic theatres (Teatro Sauto, Teatro La Caridad and Teatro Terry).

It precedes the other two in time and was the mould that set how the ones to follow would be built in terms of layout and style. It’s the first in the trilogy, the largest, most elegant, most functional and best equipped. Neoclassical is the word that best describes its exterior look, with a few details reminiscent of Milan’s famous Scala (after all it was designed by Italian architect Daniel Dall’ Aglio) and impressive acoustics achieved thanks to its clever interior design imitating a soundbox. If this little introduction is enough to pique your interest, then keep on reading to learn more about the many aspects that make this city emblem and declared National Monument so very special. Perhaps next time you are in Varadero you won’t think twice about enhancing your beach holiday with a visit to Teatro Sauto. Even better if a performance is on, but you don´t really need an excuse.

A little background history on how it came to be

The building of Sauto coincided with a prosperous era during which Cuba’s great sugar barons amassed a great fortune. Such times of abundance saw the construction of sumptuous mansions and a rapid development in recreational and cultural centres to entertain the wealthy upper classes. As it happens, just as the plans for building the Teatro Sauto were first proposed, the city of Matanzas received the title of “Athens of Cuba”, a name it earned due to the high number of art institutions and educational centres that soon sprang up everywhere, with academies, schools and centres for scientific research elevating the city’s status as an aristocrat’s ultimate paradise. Such local splendour could only be compared to the literary fruitful epoch of Pericles in Greece and as such the provincial aristocracy dreamed of perpetuating their city’s glory in the way a Prometheus or Homer would.

The flourishing of Matanzas as a cultural hub marked what is known as the city’s golden age (Siglo de Oro), marking over a century of poetic beauty - not least of all because it was also the time in which Jose Maria Heredia, considered the first romantic poetic of Latin America, became famous for his verses as much as his theatre productions in Matanzas.

It was in the midst of this literary rapture that the Teatro Sauto came to be, propelled by an insatiable thirst to expand and enhance the city’s cultural spaces. Its construction was approved on 1st May 1860 and Daniel Dall’ Aglio’s vision for the theatre was the winning plan, selected from six different projects submitted.

Making way for the grand coliseum

To make Teatro Sauto’s ambitious design and epic dimensions a solid reality, a big esplanade was chosen as the canvas upon which it would be drawn, built up. Only, this canvas was already occupied by the old Plaza de Toros, one of Cuba’s largest and most prestigious bullfighting rings which lay abandoned and forgotten for decades given Cuba’s falling out of love with the Spanish tradition and festivity which eventually came to be seen as a cruel symbol of oppression and dominance from the Spanish colonisers (Cuba’s last bullfight took place in 1947). So, no one really lamented the demolition of Matanzas’ only bullfighting ring, it was not to be missed, especially not with the promise of something so beautiful and inspirational taking its place.

And it wasn’t just the Plaza de Toros that had to disappear for the theatre to be built, but also an area belonging to the Real Aduana (Royal Customs House) and a swampy part of the terrain had to be refilled to support a rear portion of the new edifice.

An unexpected find – precious glittering gems lying underground

The building works moved as fast as was humanly possible given the tools and technology of the timet. They were completed in three years, but the actual building process was full of anecdotes and unexpected finds. Throughout the theatre’s construction several discoveries were made, the most significant of which was the Bellamar Caves (Cuevas de Bellamar) which nowadays stand as one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions for national visitors as much as international ones. The visually stunning cave system, an amazing scientific discovery that garnered worldwide attention (and amazing touristic interest – over 2,000 people visited it during the first two years after its discovery) was found in an excavation area from which the limestone used in the construction was extracted. Who was to know that Cuba’s oldest tourist attraction (the caves are over 300, 000 years old) would be discovered in such a haphazard way, thanks to the building of a now iconic theatre (iconic in its own right for its own merits)? The rest is history, as they say.

What’s behind the name?

Teatro Sauto wasn’t the first name given to this architectural masterpiece. In fact, it was the last in a series of different names. It was first called Teatro Esteban, after the governor of the region, Pedro Esteban Arraz. Afterwards, it was rebaptised as Teatro Colon, in honour of the discoverer of the Americas, Christopher Columbus and later it was named after Jose Marti, Cuba’s National Hero and most famous patriot, poet and independence fighter. For some time, it also bore the name of La Vigia, given the fact it was built in an eponymous square, close to the San Juan and Yumuri Rivers. But in the end, and for one final time it was to receive the name Sauto, to pay homage to local doctor Ambrosio de la Concepcion Sauto y Noda, a passionate lover of the arts and one of Matanzas greatest benefactors and philanthropists.

The pinnacle of art in the “Athens of Cuba

The majestic Teatro Sauto was ready to welcome visitors by 1863 and it would officially open its doors a couple of months after its structural completion with an inauguration ceremony on 6th April 1863.

Regally imposing given its scale and exquisitely designed exterior and interiors, with an immaculate attention to detail, this neoclassical building boasts four different facades, making a round-the-theatre promenade obligatory if it’s to be appreciated in its full splendour. The main front façade that gives way to the entrance has been built in classic Ionic style, with an arched portico and a raised level dotted with balconies. The rear façade, on the other hand is Doric in style with a soberer undertone, yet splendid nevertheless.

But the real magic begins once you step inside where your eyes will dart from one marble statue to the next as you admire the wood panelling throughout and the exquisite al frescoes. There’s nothing flashy, or extravagantly gaudy about the décor - its elegant yet soberly sophisticated and minimalistic. Greek goddesses carved in the finest Carrara marble will greet you in the vestibule and further along you will be impressed by the grandeur of the U-shaped auditorium, with capacity to seat up to 775 spectators. Three rows of balconies complete the picture surrounding the rounded stage, which, when raised, converts the auditorium into a grand ballroom. The curtains are an original piece of art with a painting of the “Puente de la Concordia” bridge over the Yumuri River, yet another emblem of the city.

Its most prominent feature – and the mystery surrounding it

Doubtlessly, there are many pieces of art to be found around Teatro Sauto but its most talked-about, most notably exquisite and elaborate decoration (and also the most controversial) are the ceiling frescoes, a masterful work of art depicting the nine classic Greek muses…only, there’s one missing. Polyhymnia, the Muse of Sacred Poetry, Sacred Hym and Eloquence is not in the picture, while her sisters Calliope (Muse of Epic Poetry), Clio (Muse of History), Erato (Muse of Lyric Poetry – especially the love and erotic kind), Euterpe (Muse of Music), Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy), Terpsichore (Muse of Dance), Thalia (Muse of Comedy) and Urania (Muse of Astronomy). They are all there, seemingly floating and fluttering above everything and everyone in the heavens above, but why the omission of one of them?

Was Polyhymnia deliberately left out or was it a miscalculation by Dall’ Aglio? An artist as accomplished and prestigious as him couldn’t have easily committed such an evident omission by mistake, surely. Or could he? Perhaps, he had a certain dislike for this one muse in particular (after all, this one is usually depicted as the most serious, which could be interpreted as the most boring of them all?) or maybe he simply wanted all the future generations to ponder on this fact. Why eight and not nine?

Other unresolved mysteries and unique attributes

Beyond the enigma of the missing muse, many legends have been built around the existence of the theatre, with many of these still causing speculation and a certain degree of mysticism. Some speak of ghosts taking to the stage long after the living acts have finished their performance and others attribute the creaking floors to the presence of old spectators returning time and time again to the familiar place that brought them so much joy at the height of Matanzas’ golden era.

One of the most popular myths is that Anna Pavlova enjoyed performing here so much that she is a returning guest who dances amidst the curtains and her spirit can be spied moving in the shadows of the staircase. Many also swear that Bola de Nieve returns to the piano every now and then to play his melodies, and the little bell he used to ring when he wanted the attention of spectators still echoes in the silence of an empty theatre.

Legend also goes that one of the many Chinese immigrants that worked on the quarries to extract limestone for the building of the theatre, is a loyal spectator who comes and takes his seat before walking along the windows to enjoy the fruits of his labour and admire the interiors of this great edifice. As it turns out, it was an unnamed Chinese immigrant who discovered the Bellamar Caves when working on the limestone quarries. All the glory of the discovery, of course, went to owner of the lands, Manuel Santos Parga, but this is one proud worker who in the afterlife chose to return to contemplate and enjoy what he couldn’t during his hardworking life. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Teatro Sauto is, apparently home to quite a few, though most are spotted (or their presence felt) once the show is over and the theatre is empty.

What’s not a legend but a true fact that still puzzles many is the peculiarity that on the first seat of row six you can enjoy the best sound in the auditorium, with no scientific explanation or physical evidence having been found as to why this precise spot benefits from the best acoustics. As it happens, this is where they say that the ghost of the Chinese worker seats.

Regardless of which row or seat is the absolute best for epic sound, overall Teatro Sauto’s magnificent acoustics are simply unmatched, and this can be partly explained by its exceptional geographic location, with the underground rivers that run underneath it giving it a deeper sound effect.

Famous past and present guests and performers

Teatro Sauto’s amazing acoustics no doubt attracted a great deal of stars from the national and international scene. Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso delighted audiences with his powerful tenor vocals, as did Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona with his compelling piano pieces while French actress Sarah Bernhardt captivated spectators with her performance of “Camille” back in 1887. Other famous dancers who made their way through Sauto’s stage included Russian dancer Anna Pavlova and Spanish flamenco dancer Antonio Gades. Dramatist and Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Jacinto Buenavente also put on a show at Sauto, as did composers and guitarists Leo Brouwer and Andres Segovia.

But it wasn’t all dancing, singing or drama at the Sauto as it also hosted unique and special events; like as a chess match played by Jose Raul Capablanca and the very first public presentation of Cuba’s national anthem, the Hymn of Bayamo (also known as “La Bayamesa”) in 1899. For this, and many more shows, the Sauto will always be fondly remembered and revered as Matanzas’ finest patron of the arts.

A renovated gem shining brighter than ever

After decades of neglect, difficulties in obtaining materials for repairs and much to the dismay of “matanceros”, by the turn of the 21st century the Sauto was showing very visible signs of decay. Fast forward a decade and it was in dire need of urgent action. Thankfully, the government took notice and acted rapidly to undo the damage before some of it became irreversible. It was then, in February 2010 when it was closed to the public to undergo an intense and costly overhaul that would take over seven years to complete, double that of what it took to build it and a process that’s still ongoing.

Much care was taken to preserve as many original features as possible and in this respect the renovations were a massive success. When it closed its doors, the theatre had a decaying 80 per cent value of authenticity and after the painstakingly meticulous restoration process (a millionaire ordeal) the Sauto has recovered over 90 per cent originality.

As City Historian and Conservator, Leonel Perez explains:

“We’ve worked with a specialist brigade from the private local sector and we’ve had philanthropist support from artists and professionals in diverse areas to help identify the original carpentry, which has now been put in place 100 per cent, to return the original design of the valances, the golden motifs and adornments of the interiors and other aspects that had been left forgotten over the years”

Even its lighting is being kept original, with the main floor being lighted by a small circuit of original lightbulbs. The theatre was electrified in 110 and original power liner and spark plugs have been preserved. Another remarkable rescue is that of the theatre’s own printing office and printing system, which will be used again to create new billboards in the same old style.

Its raised plateau - One of only three in the world

Of exceptional value is the rescuing of the lifting mechanism that allows its stage to rise and convert into a ballroom, a unique feature that’s being carefully restored and preserved as there’s only two other theatres in the world to have it (the Scala in Milan and Colon in Buenos Aires). This peculiar feature had stopped working completely in the 1960s but after the renovations it will be back in full working order, according to further details revealed to Cuba Debate by Matanzas Historian and City Conservator, Leonel Perez Orozco in October 2016. During the interview he couldn’t hide his excitement over the fact that this very special plateau could very soon be raised again to host prestigious national events dedicated to traditional ballroom dances like “danzon”.

A true original through and through

The theatre’s ornamented lattice, which at the point of closing was virtually gone (only 20 per cent of it left) has been completely recovered and restored. The stage’s tableau has also been refurbished using the same work methodology of the 19th century, moving planks over rails, in a way that the theatre’s acoustics remained completely unaffected.

By the end of October 2017, only a month preceding this blog, the Teatro Sauto welcomed back spectators for the first time, but renovations are ongoing in some parts with efforts being poured to make this the first ever UNESCO-listed World Heritage theatre in Cuba. Fingers crossed, they’ll achieve the prestigious title after such a monumental task.

Not just a pretty face

Apart from being the leading figure in the trilogy of classic Cuban theatres, Teatro Sauto also stands as one of the five remaining great colonial theatres in Cuba. The list used to include a total of eight (or eleven, if we were to include the crumbling Campoamor, the ruins of the once great Teatro Oriente and the recently rescued Teatro Marti) but due to the relentless passage of time and utter abandonment from some government authorities, half of these are now found in total disarray and neglect or have disappeared altogether. Yet, there’s still a glimmer of hope for some of these ailing, aging beauties as it was not that long ago that the Teatro Marti was rescued from oblivion, and the efforts could extend to other similar architectural marvels. There have been rumours circulating regarding the possible renovation of the former Teatro Brunet in Trinidad, and though no official statements has confirmed this, I’m keeping my hopes high and my fingers crossed. In the meantime, I can’t wait to witness a performance at the newly restored Sauto, once all finishing touches have been completed.

The Teatro Sauto of today

Despite the fact that works on Teatro Sauto are still ongoing, as of last month some events have been celebrated there and many more are lined up for the near future. Teatro Sauto is an official venue for important international events held in Matanzas, such as the Mayo Teatral festival and the International Ballet Festival. Once it’s fully reopened to the public and its agenda is revived and filled with programmes once again again it is expected to host events about five days a week – so plenty of chance for you to catch a performance!

It’s for anyone to judge whether Matanzas, a century later, could be still described as the Athens of Cuba - a title its inhabitants still cling onto with fierce pride. What we can say for sure, is that the restoration of Sauto will go a long way in recapturing that notion.

As the memorable Mexican muralist Diego Rivera once rightly put it:

"I recognize Matanzas by the Sauto."

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

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Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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