Essential presents three of the Algarve’s most iconic venues for performing arts
Built as a religious institution back in 1607 and later damaged in the Napoleonic war, Colégio de Santiago was only inaugurated as a theatre in April 1845. A post on one of today’s traveller review websites that really grabbed my attention commented: “What an honour to be present in this fabulous building, the performance was great, but the big star here is the building itself.” The building is Teatro Lethes, one of the oldest of its kind in the country and if this wonderful space is to take centre stage in Faro’s performing arts scene, then at least two others need to be presented alongside her as far more than supporting actors: Teatro das Figuras and Casa das Virtudes. Three different venues, three contrasting atmospheres that when combined present a genuine variety of theatrical, musical, and other performing arts.
Situated just a few minutes from the harbour, the grand old Teatro Lethes is showing signs of her age, but the old stone steps up to the entrance give her a place of distinction looking down to the street bearing her name. It is when you walk inside that the magic begins. Her size is impressive, because of how small it is, giving an immediate feeling of charm and intimacy with décor that echoes that of a classic Italian Opera House. There are four tiers of boxes arranged around the auditorium and the acoustics are excellent. If this does not give you the “wow” feeling, you will at least be happy that a place like this still exists.
You would be right to expect that the deeply rooted musical traditions of Fado and Classical Portuguese guitar would be performed here, but the same stage is shared by contemporary bands, singer-songwriters, dance groups, classical musicians, and theatre groups, among others. A Blues Fest is held here along with other yearly events and there are daytime shows for children. The Latin inscription on the building’s faНade, “Monet Oblectando ”, can be fittingly translated as “to educate whilst entertaining”. After being sold in 1925 to the Portuguese Red Cross, the theatre was restored to its original design in 2012 and The Algarve Theatre Company (ACTA) was installed as the resident theatre organisers, who continue the on-going restoration work today.
A final point of historical interest is reported that a dancer once committed suicide on stage due to unrequited love. I was not able to establish quite who and when, but l believe they are not considering a repeat performance.
The first impression of Teatro das Figuras, the Municipal Theatre of Faro, is that of a huge brick building that for some of us looks like any other municipal building and for others a beautiful example of contemporary architecture of the time it was constructed back in 2005. It is only when considering the practicalities of staging larger productions that the cleverness and vision of the design make real sense: An unloading bay for large transport vehicles at one end (with direct access to the back of the stage), public entrance to the foyer at the other end and car parking along the side.
However, the practicality, functionality and above all capacity comes at the expense of charm, character and intimacy, and whilst it seems obvious to suggest that bigger means better, this is not always the case in terms of audience enjoyment. But what it does allow for are larger and more complex productions and a venue where national and international performers can turn a show into a spectacular event.
One of the original objectives was to provide a space of national vision in terms of excellence and cultural diversity, and their programme of performances does exactly that. The venue integrates a concert hall that is technically well equipped to meet most of today’s artistic demands, a grand auditorium with a capacity for 782 spectators, a huge stage and space for an orchestra pit. All this allows for performances of opera, ballet, large dance groups, full gospel choirs and rock bands, to name but a few. The large ramp leading up to the entrance doors has at times been used to host a few open-air, evening concerts featuring very well-established Portuguese musicians.
Before moving on, it should be noted that the same area is the home of the splendid Orquestra Clássica do Sul orchestra and the regional folklore group, both adding their own flavour and interest.
In the same area, a back street that edges the Ria Formosa wetlands takes us to an older part of town with boatyards, abandoned buildings and a row of warehouses from yesteryear. It is here in one of these splendid warehouses that Casa das Virtudes has taken residence.
My first impression was that what happens inside is going to be different. And different it most certainly is. This is an independent, family-run theatre with no municipal council funding or the intrigue of historical interest as marketing leverage. This is grass-roots theatre, a space that anyone can rent and hold an event of their own, where unknown artists get the chance to show their talents (to an admittedly small audience) and really contemporary shows and alternative circus can be seen.
It is tempting to think that all this sounds amateurish and to do so would be completely wrong. The stage is actually about the same size as Teatro Lethes’ and what these guys offer is genuinely good, creative and, above all else, from the soul. There’s a laidback social atmosphere with a bar and lounge and a casual outside relaxation area with a boatyard as the backdrop. Food is also available and if you ever wanted to learn to be a circus performer, or a singer, here is your chance.
It was William Shakespeare who wrote that “the purpose of art is to give life shape” and in their own way, in one form or another, that is exactly what these venues are doing. Long may it continue.