It is 14 years since I last attended a performance at the Gran Teatro de La Havana; it was showing its age then and the lighting was rather dull. It has now been spectacularly transformed in a three year refurbishment that has opened up the foyer spaces with a new bar and space for art exhibitions and has restored both the inside and outside of the building, which is to Cubans is what the Royal Opera House is to Londoners. Most of all, it has integrated new lighting into the architecture, and in doing so has enhanced it, and given the stage top-quality lighting and technical facilities. Re-opened in January 2016, it also has the new name of Gran Teatro de la Habana <Alicia Alonso> in recognition of the achievements of the prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso in raising Cuban ballet to a world class level.
For the last week, Havana has been hosting the 25th Festival International de Ballet de La Habana <Alicia Alonso> and the great lady, who is 95 years old and still active, has been at the performances.
The theatre claims to be the oldest in Latin America, with a history going back to the opening of the Teatro Tacón in 1827, hosting international artists such as Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt. In the early 20th century, a new building – then named the Galician Centre of Havana – was constructed to designs of the architect Paul Belau and with an elaborate façade including sculptures by Giuseppe Moretti depicting benevolence, education, music and theatre. At its heart is the Garcia Lorca Auditorium which seats 1,500, in addition to other smaller spaces and rehearsal rooms. The Theatre is an outstanding venue which contrasts with the modernist Teatro National in the Plaza de la Revolucion which, although it has had new seating could do with some additional space for support facilities which clutter the outside of the building.
The transformation is part of a programme of regeneration in Havana, including the recent refurbishment of the Teatro Marti and the ongoing refurbishment of the old Capitol Building, into which the Parliament will move, in addition to new hotel developments. A great deal remains to be done, and the Gran Teatro de La Habana <Alicia Alonso> sets a high standard for the future.