Thursday, July 10, 2014

The jewel in the jungle

"It's pink," marvels Vivian Drew when she first sees the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.

"Mr. Cecco told me as much," says Jas. Hook in response. "But he left out everything else of note, which I suppose is to be expected."

Everything else of note" is a significant amount. The Teatro was a showpiece of Manaus at the time of the rubber trade, at a time when "the White City" was one of the most extravagant places on earth, a center for a blatant display of money and culture from Europeans who were making their fortunes exporting rubber around the world (and doing so on the backs of South American natives, but I digress). And it remains a cultural draw, appearing prominently in visitors' guides written for this year's World Cup in Brazil.

The teatro took fifteen years to build, finally opening its doors on January 7, 1897, for a performance of the opera La Gioconda. Legend has it the theater was built in hopes of attracting Enrico Caruso to perform in Manaus, but there is no evidence that he ever actually did so.

The entire theater was built from European materials in a Renaissance style. Atop the pink edifice rises a dome covered with 36,000 tiles from Alsace-Lorraine painted in the blue and gold of Brazilian flag. Mr. Foggerty of the Jolly Roger's crew might have approved, as he originally hailed from the Alsace region of France, according to J.M. Barrie. If Benard Foggerty cared about such things.

In addition, iron for the framework of the building was brought from Glasgow. Murano glass chandeliers hung from sky-blue domed ceilings painted with scenes from the arts by Italian artist Domenico de Angelis. Not everything in the Teatro was of European design, however--the metal chairs had cane seats and backs for comfort in the jungle heat.

Upon entering the reception foyer, a visitor was greeted by golden drapes, coral pillars of Carrara marble, and heavy carved chairs of Jacaranda wood.

A pirate captain might not be able to procure the best of the 701 seats in the harp-shaped theater upon short notice, but with three tiers of box seats, he could certainly arrange for reasonable sightlines for him and his companion. From there they would look upon a painted curtain, with "The Meeting of the Waters," a depiction by Crispim do Amaral of the Rio Negro and Solimões rivers where they meet to form the Amazon. 

After the collapse of the rubber trade in the early years of the 20th century, there was little call for European opera performances in the heart of the jungle. The Teatro stood empty for 90 years, with the exception of its appearance in Werner Herzog's 1980 film Fitzcarraldo, until 2001 when Brazil's new populist government decided to reopen it, "allocating 1.5 million pounds a year for this task (in a province where 60 percent of the population is poverty stricken and illiterate," as Atlas Obscura puts it.

A variety of concerts and performances are held now in the refurbished Teatro, which also hosts an annual opera festival and is the home of the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra. A few changes have been  made to its original decor. The wicker seats have been replaced by more traditional wooden chairs with red velvet upholstery (one of the originals remains on display). And it now houses a Lego miniature of itself.

After my immersion in research about Manaus and the Teatro, I'm especially intrigued to learn about a recent film that seems to bring up some interesting--and uncomfortable--contrasts between the theater and its location, both in the past and now. As the documentary's creator chooses only to screen it in locations that are as opulent as its subject, I can't say if I'll ever get the chance to determine this for myself. Such elitism seems entirely appropriate for a theater with a history such as this.

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