Monday, June 6, 2011     17:19

The Artistic Inauguration of the National Theater

Since the time of the French Canal, with its great economic and social surge, Panama lived great theatrical events, with countless companies and outstanding artists that in their tours to the countries of South America, made temporary scales in this city. Watchful managers took advantage of this situation and contracted them to offer shows in the capital that only because of our enviable geographical position were able to be presented. They were very difficult to finance in other neighboring countries.

The Panamanian cultural life in the beginnings of the Nation needed to be revitalized. President Manuel Amador Guerrero understood this and since May 1904 gave his official backing to the initiative of the National Assembly of building a National Theater and Governmental Palace.

The plans were made by the Italian architect G. N. Ruggieri , and the majestic theater, to the astonishment of the inhabitants of the capital and of the rest of the country , was ready for its first official act when the second president of Panama, José Domingo De Obaldía, took his oath on October 1 1908, at 4:00 o'clock p.m. Nevertheless, the theater’s artistic inauguration would not take place until some weeks later.

Starting October 4 there began to appear in the local newspapers , news of the forthcoming arrival from Guatemala, of the very famous and renowned Lombardi Opera Company, which was hired by the efforts of Don Narciso Garay for a series of presentations in Panama.

Directed by Don Mario Lombardi, it arrives in the Steamship Parismina to the port of Colón, on the 17th of the same month. It consisted of 83 members of which 25 were main artists, 8 secondary, 8 ballet dancers, a choir of 30 voices and an orchestra of 12 musicians.

The company came preceded by a well deserved fame, having performed in different countries of the world and lately in the New Orleans (Louisiana) French Opera Theater.

The transfer to the capital of their voluminous baggage needed 20 railroad boxcars and a great effort. Finally everything arrived in good shape for the first function on Oct. 22nd, being announced with great fanfare , the premiere of the opera Aida, by Guiseppe Verdi, one of the Italian master´s more beautiful compositions.

The cast was the following:

The King: Mr. A. Manceri
Amneris: Miss. L. Mileri
Aída: Mrs. L. De Benedetto
Radames: Mr. A. Scalabrini
Ramfis: Mr. P. Wulman
Amonastro: Mr. G. Pimmazzoni
Messenger: Mr. A. Neri

The following prices were charged:

Boxes (8 seats): $40.00
Amphitheater: $5.00
Luneta: $4.00
Gallery: $1.00
General Admission: $2.00 (standing room in the area of the amphitheaters)

President De Obaldía, members of their Cabinet and special guests occupied the boxes of honor. The function began exactly at 8:40 o'clock.

Professor Narciso Garay directed the orchestra playing a patriotic march of his own inspiration, written especially for that memorable day.

The critics and later commentaries of the opening night, highlighted the singular gift of the players, with Mrs. de Benedetto taking a foremost place for her beautiful voice and great acting skill in the difficult role that she played. From the first moment she immediately captured the attention of the large crowd that filled the National Theater to capacity.

The great luxury of the wardrobe and the extraordinary backing given by the orchestra, were deemed important factors for the successful inauguration gala.

It was estimated that more than 1,000 people occupied all the boxes in their two levels, the luneta, the amphitheaters, the gallery and the back area, were completely full.

The beauty of the decorations of the theater and all its radiant and splendid lights, served as background to the ladies who beautifully adorned with their best luxurious dresses, flaunted expensive jewels.

The “crème de la crème” of Panamanian society supported with their presence, the effort to place Panama as a great cultural center. In spite of this singular success, there was a lot of criticism about speculators that bought a great number of tickets in order to resell them at very high prices, obtaining huge profits this way.

On opening night, only the main entrance was opened, not so the other two, which caused a great queue and problems to enter to their seats.

There was also the case of some people who were allowed to enter before curtain time, taking the best seats in the gallery section, amid big protests from those that had formed long lines to get an early access, and who suddenly felt deceived.

The place designated for the orchestra, was very narrow especially for the violin section. The stranger occurrence was that a number of Panamanian musicians, employed as reinforcements, arrived late to the show, since first they had to fulfill their duties as members of the Republican Band in its weekly performance at Santa Ana's park.

All these details were later improved and the city was able to enjoy a total of 20 presentations of the Lombardi Opera Company, which was possible by a government subsidy of $10,000.

Culture, then, won its space among the Government plans with this necessary subsidy, placing a young Republic of hardly four years of independent life, in a very advanced place in Latin America, with a new grandiose theater, worthy of the best cities in the world.

The National Theater then began a long journey that would take it through incredible roads in some of its 86 years of existence, sometimes through contorted paths that never more should be retaken, but continuing toward the solemn dignity and classic elegance that were its attributes since its first years.