Teatro Nacional (Costa Rica’s National Theater) Celebrates 120th Anniversary

The architecture and ornamentation of the National Theater is a great allegory to the political system and to the models of economic and cultural development assumed by the liberal Costa Rican State

The curtain has strong Republican influence.

This week the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica (TNCR) – National Theater –  in downtown San Jose, on the south side of the Plaza de la Cultura, celebrates its 120th anniversary, the theater opened to the public on October 21, 1897 with a performance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust.

Although the works began in 1891, the first plans for the TNCR design work was approved on October 7, 1890, combining the ideas and work of a large group of workers, who produced a monument in accordance with the aspirations of the ruling elites.

The Foyer. From Teatro Nacional archives period 1920-1930

“Conceived as an oscillatory movement, sometimes harmonious, sometimes contradictory, between its function as a ‘symbol of power’ and ‘allegory of artistic metabolism’,” explains Fred Antonio Herrera Bermúdez, Director General of the National Theater of Costa Rica. “As a symbol of power, the TNCR has been the place par excellence for all the manifestations of the ruling classes, the State, public institutions, large families, associations, universities and personalities”.


The Teatro Nacional was the place where it was important to be seen by others, and although many others have appeared in San José that rival the work, the National Theater still remains, for the most solemn acts, the space of memory and historical consecration of our town. This monument was born as the home of the arts in Costa Rica…Cultural freedom is a possible synthesis between two poles, in which our society seeks an original way of life to solve the challenge of living together and sharing a common destiny,” writes Bermudez on the Teatro’s official website.

The anniversary celebration begins on Tuesday, October 17 and runs through Sunday, October 22, with the 19th being the big day. The Sunday event, the concert with 100 musicians from the General Directorate of Bands is free to the public.

The History

The construction of the Teatro Nacional was coordinated by the Dirección General de Obras Públicas (General Directorate of Public Works), a division of the Secretaría de Fomento, today known as the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes (MOPT) – Ministry of Public Works and Transportation – and a citizens’ board created by the Government.

One of the images of the construction of the National Theater at the end of the 19th century

Although the contractors proposed artistic solutions, the administrators had the last word in all the decisions regarding the design of the building and its ornaments.

The design was by the architect Guillermo Reitz and the engineer Nicolás Chavarría. Subsequently, engineers Ángel Miguel Velázquez, Enrique Invernizio and Augusto Fla-Chebba modified some internal spaces and added external structures. Leon Tessier and Luis Matamoros, Romulo Rotta, Alessandro Puelli and Antonio Varela Salazar, also had a hand in the design.

Andrés Segovia Concert in Costa Rica. From Teatro Nacional archives period 1920-1930

Design and construction was when San Jose’s population was only about 19,000 people. To finance the construction, the President of Costa Rica, José Joaquín Rodríguez Zeledón decided to place a tax on coffee, then the principal export product.

Later, a coffee planter begged the government to remove the export tax on this product and put it on rice and beans (also principal export products of the time).

The facades derive from a Germanic architectural movement based on the Italian Renaissance. The influence of the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio is evident by the shape of the building, the hint of a portico, the sculptures of the pediment and the use of a dome. Tthe marquee, the eaves, the deck and the gates correspond to the taste associated with the Industrial Revolution and give the National Theater an eclectic hue.

Stylistically, the Renaissance and French taste of the exterior contrasts with the eclecticism of the interior decoration, as there are works inspired by Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Rococo and academicist art.

The front of the theater features statues of Calderón de la Barca and Ludwig van Beethoven. There are several monuments by the entry walkway including Frédéric Chopin. The inside features the mural Allegory of Coffee and Bananas by Milanese artist Aleardo Villa, which is featured on the five colón bill.

This painting is high overhead on the ceiling of the vestibule of the National Theater. It is probably the most famous painting in Costa Rica. Flickr.

The painting was produced in Italy and shipped to Costa Rica for installation in the theater.

Thus, the National Theater is a sort of monument to the progress of Costa Rica and to European culture.

The Theater Today

Teatro Nacional, Costa Rica by amonge. Deviantart.com

As well as having performances several times a week, the theatre is a tourist attraction. Performances by the National Symphonic Orchestra (NSO) take place as part of orchestra’s regular season and include both Costa Rican and foreign composers.