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Santa Isabel Theatre, Recife, PE

On 30 April 1839, he signed Law number 74, authorising the construction of a public theatre for the city.

Santa Isabel Theatre, Recife, PE

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Last update: 19/03/2020

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

The idea to construct a public theatre in Recife came from the President of the Pernambuco Province at the time, Francisco do Rego Barros, Baron, Viscount and later Count of Boa Vista.

On 30 April 1839, he signed Law number 74, authorising the construction of a public theatre for the city.

The Province did not have, at the time, qualified professionals, such as engineers and architects, or even specialist builders or carpenters. The few engineers that existed had military educations.

To make the Government’s project viable, Rego Barros promoted the coming of countless European professionals: engineers, mathematicians, technicians and operators including Louis Léger Vauthier, the engineer responsible for the new theatre’s project, who arrived in Recife in September 1840.

The first design by Vauthier, whose budget was 400 ‘contos’, was rejected because of its high cost. The final project, estimated at 240 ‘contos’, was approved in February 1841, with work beginning in April. The location chosen was at the time called Campo do Erário, where there was just sand. Today it is the Praça da República (Republic Park).

During the construction period it was called Teatro de Pernambuco. Only shortly before its inauguration, on 18 May 1850, its name was changed to Teatro de Santa Isabel, in honour of Princess Isabel, daughter of Emperor Pedro II. The suggestion for the homage came from the then-governor of the Pernambuco Province, Hermeto Carneiro Leão. The play performed on its inauguration day was O pajem d’Aljubarrata (The Page from Aljubarrata), by the Portuguese writer Mendes Leal.

Santa Isabel Theatre was the main theatre house of the city, a place of entertainment, social mixing and also for exercising citizenship. According to Joaquim Nabuco, it was at Santa Isabel that the Abolitionist cause was won, referring to the speeches and events held there.

In the 19th century, the companies that performed at the Santa Isabel Theatre were mostly run by businessmen who signed contracts for long periods. The Theatre also received foreign lyrical companies, among them the Companhia Lyrica Italiana G. Marinangelli, which presented the opera La traviata in 1858.

In 1859, the Theatre received its most illustrious guest, Emperor Pedro II, who on visiting the Northern provinces spent his birthday in Recife and was honoured with a gala spectacular at Santa Isabel.

On 19 September 1869, the Theatre was almost completely destroyed by a fire that left only the lateral walls, one balcony and the front porch standing. A temporary replacement wooden structure was built at the Campo das Princesas, named Pavilhão Santa Isabel (Santa Isabel Pavillion).

It was a great loss, but the reconstruction brought important modifications: the placing of an iron structure to support the boxes, changes in the décor and lengthening the central body of the building, among others.

With guidance from Louis Léger Vauthier, who although being in Paris had his recommendations respected by the engineer responsible for the Theatre’s reconstruction, José Tibúrcio Pereira de Magalhães. Santa Isabel was reopened on 16 December 1876.
In 1916, under the Manoel Borba government, there were further modifications with the installation of electric lights, total reform of the gas pipes, replacing the main curtain with one imported from England and general repairs to preserve the building.

In 1936, there were again general reforms, as were done for its centenary in 1950, when the governor of Pernambuco was Alexandre José Barbosa Lima Sobrinho, Moraes Rego was the mayor of Recife and Valdemar de Oliveira the director of the Theatre. Santa Isabel belonged both to the State and to The City. From 1949, however, it was made a National Historic and Artistic Patrimony as a property of the Recife City Council.

There were further restorations in 1970 and 1977, and between 1983 and 1985 many improvements were made to Santa Isabel.

In 2000 another reform was begun which required work to ensure the building’s preservations, return some original features, give more safety to audiences and more space and resources to stage performances. The Joaquim Nabuco Foundation participated in this last reform through the work of technicians from its Laboratory of Research, Conservation and Restoration of Documents and Artworks –Laborarte.

Recife, 17 July 2003.
(Updated on 8 September 2009.)
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.

sources consulted

ARRAIS, Isabel Concessa. Teatro de Santa Isabel. Recife: Fundação de Cultura Cidade do Recife, 2000.

BORGES, Geninha da Rosa. Teatro de Santa Isabel: nascedouro & permanência. Recife: Cepe, 2000.

TEATRO Santa Isabel: documentos para a sua história: 1838-1850. Recife: Prefeitura Municipal. Diretoria de Documentação e Cultura, 1950.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Rachel de Queiroz. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.