Amazonas, Here We Come! — A Place for the Opera to Shine in Brazil

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Strange Operatic Bedfellows

Teatro Amazonas in Manaus (destination360.com)

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, opera began to draw the seemingly incompatible attention of the wealthy rubber barons, who settled the rugged northern portions of the country.

The riches that the world market for natural rubber commanded at the time fed a lavishly ostentatious lifestyle that first manifested itself, in 1876, with the planning and building of the Teatro Santa Isabel in Recife, in addition to the 1878 opening of the Teatro da Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace Theater) — nowadays called Teatro da Paz — in Belém do Pará; and that would later reach its full flowering with the resplendent Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.

A gilded, 700-seat tribute to that bygone age of excess, it was the rubber barons’ way of leapfrogging over three centuries of European artistic and cultural development in a mere fifteen years — the exact length of time it took to complete the construction of the opera house.

The structure itself was located near the Amazon Basin, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões converged — the black waters of the one and the brown waters of the other, a physical (and symbolic) meeting place for the two mighty rivers. Its pink Carrara marble exterior, Portuguese stonework, imported Italian crystal, English laminated gold leaf and cast-iron balconies, as well as elegantly embossed French interior, boast of a Belle Époque opulence and rococo refinement that rivaled even the gaudiest palaces of the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner’s patron and supporter.

With its “golden cupola inlaid with thirty-six thousand ceramic tiles,” the house was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve 1896 — a few short months after Carlos Gomes’ death — with the opening performance of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda occurring about a week later. Many of the era’s greatest living artists, including (reputedly) actress Sarah Bernhardt, dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, singer Adelina Patti, and others, traveled hundreds of miles upriver and through dense jungle forest to appear there. There is still some controversy today as to whether or not these world-famous celebrities, in particular the tenor Enrico Caruso, actually set foot in the region.

Intriguingly, the rubber barons’ wild obsession with playing cultural catch-up to the rest of civilization was imaginatively re-worked in the 1982 Werner Herzog flick Fitzcarraldo.* German film director Herzog would assume a more integral role in re-establishing the Brazilian national opera to a semblance of its fin-de-siècle eminence, first with his 1994 production of Gomes’ Il Guarany in Bonn, Germany, staged two years later at Washington’s National Opera, both starring tenor Plácido Domingo and conducted by Brazilian-born maestro John Neschling; and later, of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser in 2001, at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, originally slated for São Paulo but prematurely scrapped due to budget cuts.

In spite of the combination of hubris and pretentiousness — or perhaps even because of them — the glory days of grand opera in the Amazon Basin lasted barely a decade. Reporter James Brooke, of The New York Times, remarked that, “The outbreak of World War I cut the theater off from European companies that had regularly visited. Only three companies traveled to Manaus during the 1920s, and the grand opera house sank into ruin” after 1946.

Too, the short-lived glitter of that era quickly faded, along with the fortunes of the would-be empire builders. But the imposing physical structures they brazenly erected still stand to serve as silent reminders of their misguided extravagance.

Other Temples of Worship

This was but a temporary setback, for opera as a viable art form in Brazil continued to survive well into the twenty-first century. The focus would soon shift from the under-developed Northern interior to the more progressive Southeast.

Teatro Municipal in Rio (Claudio Lara)

With coffee having supplanted rubber as the cash crop of preference, the nouveau riche barões do café (“coffee barons”) now longed to flaunt their new-found wealth to the world. They agreed to finance and support the building of two of the most well known Brazilian opera houses, both of which took the name of Teatro Municipal, or Municipal Theater

The theaters were built only a few years apart, with the work on the house in Rio (“a superb academic palace… defined as the symbol of our country’s full-fledged eclecticism”) beginning in 1905 and seeing completion in July 1909; and São Paulo’s version, anointed in September 1911, in the very center of old downtown, and both based on the classic Beaux Arts design of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra, which was in keeping with the period aesthetic of admiration for, and emulation of, all things European:

“The 1,816 seats seemed few for the gentlemen in their frock coats and the ladies with gloves, fans and hats. All were enchanted with the magnificence of the Theatre, at last in the image and likeness of the city [of São Paulo], cultivated and prosperous. Outside, such was the activity that cavalry and infantrymen in gala uniform had to call on a group of cyclists from the Civic Guard, to control the order of vehicles on the way out… There were so many speeches and acts of homage that the last act [of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet] ended at 12:45 a.m… The programme was shaped like a fan, and full of advertisements: chemists, barbers, glovemakers, grocers, cigarettes, sweets, toques, brandy, beer, remedies for dandruff and sweating… On performance days special trams, upholstered in white, served to carry the refined spectators and to protect their impeccably tailored and starched clothes.”

According to historical brochures of the time, the theaters were “created, above all, to attend to the needs of the emerging Italian immigrant community… with the objective of providing a house with characteristics similar to the best the world had to offer.”

“In addition to the [republican era’s] ambition to achieve higher cultural standards…,” the Municipal Theaters “were associated with extensive city renovation plans which, to a certain extent, they came to symbolize.” In layman’s terms, they became structural manifestations of “the moving force behind the urban renovation” projects of the self-same communities for which they were designed to serve, as well as a paean to the sturdy individuals who designed and constructed them.

The growing Italian population, having reached its migratory peak at about this same time, thrived in the Southeastern parts of the country, where “king coffee” was most abundant. By dint of hard work and personal sacrifice, the immigrants managed to carve out an indelible cultural niche in Brazilian society. In the process, they permanently enriched the Portuguese language with an indisputably Mediterranean flavor — somewhat accurately portrayed in the late-1990s soap opera, Terra Nostra (“Our Land”), on the Globo network — and gave Brazilians of the Sudeste their first real occasion to revel in the unrestrained joys of la bella musica Italiana, which, for most people, meant the opera.

With world-class theaters in full operation, Brazil could now boast of an especially attractive home base for opera performances. It soon became a major stopover point on every important artist’s South American leg of his or her world tour. The Via Sacra of performance venues for any great singer, then, would start with Rio de Janeiro’s main musical arena; moving on to the stages of São Paulo, it would finally conclude in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the ornately decorated Teatro Colón, which opened in 1908.

Indeed, from the early twentieth century onward, Brazil’s principal lyric theaters were graced by a veritable who’s who of legendary opera greats: from the husband-and-wife team of soprano Eugenia Burzio and tenor Giovanni Zenatello (in 1904), to baritone Pasquale Amato (1907) and the Italian vocal phenomenon Titta Ruffo (1911), who had inaugurated the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo in that five-act opéra-comique version of Hamlet referred to earlier, and who reappeared four years later as Rigoletto in Rio. By 1922, both centers saw the local debuts of the likes of Elvira de Hidalgo, Gilda dalla Rizza, Claudia Muzio, Gabriella Besanzoni, Karl Braun, Miguel Fleta, Walter Kirchoff, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Hipólito Lázaro, Emil Schipper, Pietro Mascagni, Vincenzo Bellezza, and Felix Weingartner.

The late 1930s and intervening war years were relatively lean ones for opera in the region; but the postwar period of the mid– to late forties, up through and including the 1950s, proved to be an enormous boom time, as Brazil played host to a marvelous assortment of performers, conductors, directors, and producers, typically of Italian extraction.

Elisabetta Barbato (esdf-opera.de)

Among the principal guest artists who appeared, in both houses, at one time or another were sopranos Maria Callas, Victoria De Los Angeles, Magda Olivero, Antonietta Stella, and Renata Tebaldi; mezzos Fedora Barbieri, Adriana Lazzarini, Elena Nicolai, and Giulietta Simionato; tenors Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Beniamino Gigli, Gianni Poggi, Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, and Ramón Vinay; baritones Gino Bechi, Tito Gobbi, Enzo Mascherini, and Giuseppe Taddei; basses Boris Christoff, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Italo Tajo; conductors Oliviero De Fabritiis, Franco Ghione, Vittorio Gui, Gino Marinuzzi, and Tullio Serafin; and American Verdi specialist, baritone Leonard Warren, billed as the very Latinate-sounding “Leonardo Veronese,” opposite Italian soprano Elisabetta Barbato and native-Brazilian singer Elias Reis e Silva, in Il Trovatore. (My own father was especially privileged to have caught these fine artists in their prime inside São Paulo’s Teatro Municipal.)

Moreover, the non-adventurous repertoire for the country’s two main theaters was comprised of the usual operatic warhorses — La Traviata, La Bohème, Madama Butterfy, Tosca, Rigoletto, Aida, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, and The Barber of Seville, in that order — offset by a smattering of less familiar showpieces, among them Boito’s devilish Mefistofele, Massenet’s exotic Thais, Mussorgsky’s dramatic Boris Godunov, and Mascagni’s Japanese-flavored Iris.

In his superbly detailed guide, Ópera em São Paulo: 1952-2005, author Sérgio Casoy meticulously outlines the season-by-season developments, to include the dates and times of all performances, complete cast listings, the ins-and-outs of orchestra leaders, major and minor substitutions, and production and design-team data, in addition to other miscellaneous matters associated with each work.

Unfortunately for opera, Brazil’s capital city was moved in 1960 from the festival atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro to the barren hinterlands of Brasília, in the central state of Goiás, with federal funds following soon after. Both theaters suffered artistically and financially as a result.

The houses underwent extensive renovations throughout the late seventies and into the middle-eighties. But due to perpetual funding problems, almost constant uncertainty over the economy, and the precarious political situation in the country during the 1990s — to include the somewhat off-beat nature of programming overall, which featured (among other things) Carnival and graduation balls, noisy political conventions, and official party banquets — the Municipal Theaters were no longer the vibrant centers of artistic and cultural life they once were. The golden curtain had been lowered on a full-scale Brazilian revival of the opera.

More recently, however, imported productions from other international institutions (such as Herzog’s Tannhäuser), plus scattershot performances of standard repertory items (Butterfly, Traviata, Turandot, and Die Walküre), mixed with the traditional (Gomes’ Fosca, Lo Schiavo, and Il Guarany) as well as more obscure fare (Guarnieri’s Pedro Malazarte, Villa-Lobos’ Yerma and A Menina das Nuvens), have conspired to keep the hope alive in Brazil for better opera days ahead. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* The legend that Caruso once graced the stage of the Teatro Amazonas was probably due to his all-but fictionalized presence in Herzog’s iconoclastic film epic. Regardless, the great Neapolitan tenor did, in fact, pay several visits to Brazil during his short lifetime, including an unforgettable one, in 1903, in Rio de Janeiro (September 8 to 26), where he performed in Rigoletto, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and Iris; and again in 1917, in São Paulo (September 25 to October 10), as well as Rio (October 13 and 16). Both cities saw him in his greatest role as Canio in Pagliacci, in addition to Carmen, Tosca, The Elixir of Love, Lodoletta by Mascagni, La Bohème, and as the Chevalier des Grieux in both Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

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