The National Theater is Costa Rica at its most enchanting. Chagrined that touring prima donna Adelina Patti bypassed San José in 1890 for lack of a suitable venue, wealthy coffee merchants raised import taxes and hired Belgian architects to design this building, lavish with cast iron and Italian marble. The theater was inaugurated in 1897 with a performance of Gounod's Faust, featuring an international cast. The sandstone exterior is marked by Italianate arched
windows, marble columns with bronze capitals, and statues of strange bedfellows Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) and 17th-century Spanish Golden Age playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81). The Muses of Dance, Music, and Fame are silhouetted in front of an iron cupola. French designer Alain Guilhot created the building's nighttime external illumination system. (He did the same for the Eiffel Tower.) The soft coppers, golds, and whites highlight the theater's exterior nightly from 6 pm to 5 am. A project funded by the German government has restored the theater's cupola to its original red color.
The sumptuous neo-baroque interior is of interest, too. Given the provenance of the building funds, it's not surprising that frescoes on the stairway inside depict coffee and banana production. Note Italian painter Aleardo Villa's famous ceiling mural Alegoría del Café y Banano (Allegory of Coffee and Bananas), a joyful harvest scene that appeared on Costa Rica's old 5-colón note. (The now-defunct bill is prized by collectors and by visitors as a souvenir, and is often sold by vendors in the plaza between the theater and the Gran Hotel Costa Rica next door.) You can see the theater's interior by attending one of the performances that take place several nights a week (tickets are reasonably priced); intermission gives you a chance to nose around. Stop at the boletería (box office) in the lobby and see what strikes your fancy. (Don't worry if you left your tuxedo or evening gown back home; as long as you don't show up for a performance wearing shorts, jeans, or a T-shirt, no one will care.)
For a nominal admission fee you can also move beyond the lobby; a 40-minute guided tour is included. Call a day in advance if you'd like a guided tour in English; it's included in your admission price. (The theater is sometimes closed for rehearsals, so call before you go.) If you're downtown on a Tuesday between February and Christmas, take in one of the Teatro al Mediodía (Theater at Midday) performances that begin at noon. It might be a chamber-music recital or a one-act play in Spanish. A similar program called Música al Atardecer (Music at Dusk) takes place each Thursday at 5 pm. Admission for either is $2, and both are presented in the second-floor foyer.