May 26, 2009
With French opera and world-class Spanish mezzo-soprano singer Nancy Fabiola-Herrera as one of the highlights, the restored Amazonas Theater has recreated Manaus’ glory days as a thriving cultural center in the Amazon forest.
Organizers say that scheduling works by French composers at the 13th Opera Festival at the theater recaptures the spirit of Manaus when the city in northern Brazil was known as the Paris of the jungle.
It earned that reputation more than 100 years ago, thanks to bounteous wealth from the rubber industry that allowed Manaus residents to imitate what went on in major European cities and splurge on architecture and the arts.
Manaus also had a Parisian air thanks to the French style of some of its buildings and squares.
In the early part of the 20th century, the small city, buoyed by its rubber production feeding into the booming US automobile industry, decided to build a magnificent opera house to host the world’s finest opera singers.
The seemingly extravagant endeavour that would take 12 years inspired German film director Werner Herzog’s 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo.”
With its opera house, Manaus, which then had barely 100,000 residents, became an artistic hub in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest.
Later on, when Asia became a competing rubber producer and the industry dried up, the imposing Amazonas Theater fell into decay and was virtually abandoned for 90 years until the Brazilian authorities decided to restore it.
After restoration was completed in 1997, annual opera festivals with top international performers were established. They have become a tradition in the city much changed since 1894, when construction on the Teatro Amazonas first began.
The opera festival, set to run through May 31, has become one of Brazil’s most important. This year the festival tuned into a nationwide tribute to France called “The Year of France in Brazil.”
Programing focused on French opera and included works such as “Samson et Dalila” (“Samson and Delilah”) by Camille Saint Saens, “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”) by Hector Berlioz, and Claude Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande” (“Pelleas and Melisande”).
The top attraction early in the festival was Spanish opera star Nancy Fabiola-Herrera, who gave her debut performance in the main female role in “Samson et Dalila.”
Mirrors covered the entire set of the daringly staged opera directed by internationally renowned Spanish director Emilio Sagi.
Fabiola-Herrera performed alongside US tenor Michael Hendrick and two big names in French opera: baritone singer Jean Philippe Lafont and bass singer Jerome Varnier.
Antonio Costa, an artistic producer at the festival, said that foreign opera singers were “thrilled” at the opportunity to perform in the Amazonas Theater.
They were also stunned when they saw the opera house. “They all think the Amazonas Theater is in the middle of the jungle,” Costa says.
“They’re surprised when they learn that Manaus today is a city with 1.2 million inhabitants that is growing rapidly and has an intense cultural scene.”
As in previous years, the 13th Opera Festival has been a hit with audiences. The 700-seat opera house has nearly sold out at every event, and some 15,000 people are expected at the final event on May 31.
According to Costa, that renovation of the Amazonas opera house not only helped to create a public arena for opera in Manaus but also encouraged local musicians and opera singers.
The success of past opera festivals has made organizers branch out into jazz, theater and film, in July, October and November, respectively.
In the early 20th century Manaus was so important on the economic front that it was the first Brazilian city to receive an electricity grid, ahead of the nation’s capital.
The buying power of the Manaus elite was so great that they ordered granite to be imported from Portugal to build the Amazonas Theater.
The 36,000 glass plates covering the dome tinted in the colors of the Brazilian flag were acquired from the famous French Koch-Freres house based in Alsace.
The Amazonas Theater welcomed major opera and theater companies from all over the world that made the long trip to the remote Amazon rainforest. Performers included Italians Giovanni Emanuel and Rafael Tomba and musicians such as Thomaz Del-Negro from Portugal.
However, from 1912 onward, Brazil’s “rubber barons” were routed out by Asian competitors who offered much lower prices. The collapse of the Manaus rubber industry meant the end of the Amazonas Opera House dream.
Over the following 90 years, the theater would only open its doors for fashion shows, beauty contests and parties thrown by politicians. It was not until 1997 that a new life began for this icon of Brazilian cultural history. DPA