The Teatro Amazonas, in Manaus, was inaugurated in 1896 with
excerpts from Ponchielli’s
La Gioconda, with many of the era’s
greatest living artists, including Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso
and Isadora Duncan, traveling hundreds of miles upriver,
and through dense jungle forest, to appear there.
The Triumphal Scene of the second act of
Aïda was well underway, with all of the stage participants actively engaged in one of opera’s most impressive ensemble gatherings.
Just as the chorus of high priests announces the entrance of the defeated Ethiopian captives, now permanently enslaved to the Egyptian Empire, the prima donna portraying the princess Aïda
holds up her hand to quiet the proceedings.
Taking his cue from the singer, the young conductor Arturo Toscanini, played by C. Thomas Howell, brings the spectacle to a halt as the soprano, impersonated by American actress
Elizabeth Taylorand a flamboyant diva in her own rightmakes an impassioned impromptu speech against the evils of slavery.
Her words and glances are directed upward, toward the private parterre box where the emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II (French actor Philippe Noiret), sits with his entourage, attempting to
enjoy the performance. His imperial glare strongly implies a certain lack of sympathy for the soprano’s liberal stance.
Nonetheless, Taylor’s show-stopping oration hits the mark, as the Emperor dutifully rises and exits the opera, followed by his royal retinue, amid the cheers and bravos of the delirious
spectators, and to spontaneous shouts of "long live the Emperor, long live Brazil."
Undeterred by the goings on, the maestro radiates admiration and respect for Taylor’s bold resolve, as unheralded in its way as his own appearance was earlier that evening.
This thoroughly entertaining scene from the never-theatrically-released 1988 film
Young Toscanini, directed by famed Italian auteur Franco Zeffirelli, superbly dramatizes the very real,
and unscheduled, debut of the illustrious Italian conductor in a late
19th Century Rio de Janeiro opera houseand is a total and complete fabrication.
Act Two, Scene One: The Mighty Toscanini
After the deaths of the Emperor Dom Pedro II and his favorite composer Carlos Gomes, it would seem that more adventurous and imperious souls than these two deserving titans would be
needed to firmly place Brazil on the musical map.
What the opera most required at this critical juncture was a permanent home, in addition to a strong and fearless guiding spirit that could drag the culturally backward nation into the modern age.
In the end, these two key elements would emerge from the most implausible of sources, for imbedded within this elaborate scenario was a single act of courageous defiance committed by one
of classical music’s most tempestuous personae.
This act, considered by musicologists as a watershed in the history of the operatic art, and an event that has long since passed into the realm of musical myth and legendas evidenced in
the opening passagewas the unexpected conducting debut of principal cellist and assistant chorus master Arturo Toscanini, during a combative 1886 performance of
Aïda by a visiting Italian opera troupe, the Compagnia Lirica Italiana, at the Imperial Theater in Rio de Janeiro (Note: there is no record of the Emperor or his wife having attended the theater that night, or of a
mid-act disruption by one of the cast members).
The fiery maestro from Parma was forced to step into the shoes of Brazilian composer-conductor Leopoldo Miguez, after a storm of controversy and a vociferous public outburst forced Miguez
to quit the orchestra prior to show time.
The protest was launched due to alleged incompetence on his part, but probably had more to do with the Italian Company’s incapacity to take orders from a contracted Brazilian "outsider" than
to Miguez’s unquestioned musical ability. It all spilled over in the press, and ultimately rubbed off on the shoulders of his hapless replacement, conductor Carlo Superti, who was prevented
from taking up his baton just as the opera was about to begin by a steady hail of boos, whistles, catcalls and projectiles.
In desperation, the theater’s management approached a recent conservatory graduate, the nineteen-year-old Toscanini, who was in the pit for the performance, as a last-minute substitute to
salvage what he could of the evening, and the rest of the tour.
To his lasting credit, the fledgling conductor’s first podium appearance was an unequivocal triumph; he even succeeded in conducting the score entirely from memory, an unheard of practice at
the time. This led to additional European and South American engagements, including a stint at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and was instrumental in solidifying Toscanini’s
international reputation abroad, thus launching him on one of the music world’s outstanding conducting careers.
Recovering from this near fiasco, Miguez went on to earn kudos of his own as a champion in Brazil of the works of composers Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Hector
Berliozquite unprecedented for a Brazilian of that epochand even won a First Prize for himself in an 1890 competition, the result of which was the scoring of the
Hino à Proclamação da
República (Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic), once known to every little schoolchild until it was displaced by the current national anthem. It no doubt helped his chances that Miguez was an
avowed republican sympathizer.
But as far as the Brazilian national opera was concerned, neither he nor the talented Toscanini would prove to be that true guiding force destined for domestic greatness.
Act Two, Scene Two: Strange Operatic Bedfellows
Towards the end of the 19th Century, opera began to draw the seemingly incompatible attention of the wealthy rubber barons, who settled the northern parts of Brazil.
The riches that the world market for natural rubber commanded at the time fed a lavishly ostentatious lifestyle that first manifested itself in 1878 with the completion of the Teatro da
Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace Theater, now called simply Teatro da Paz) in Belém do Pará, and would later reach full flowering with the resplendent Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.
A gilded 700-seat tribute to that bygone age of excess, it was the 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 convergethe black waters of the one, and the brown waters of the othera physical
(and symbolic) meeting place for the two mighty rivers. Its pink Carrara marble exterior, Portuguese stonework, English laminated gold leaf and elegantly embossed interior boast of a Belle
Époque opulence and Rococo refinement that rival even the gaudiest palaces of the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
The house was inaugurated in 1896 with excerpts from Ponchielli’s
La Gioconda, with many of the era’s greatest living artists, including Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso and Isadora
Duncan, traveling hundreds of miles upriver, and through dense jungle forest, to appear there.
The rubber barons’ wild obsession with playing cultural catch-up to the rest of civilization was imaginatively reworked in the Werner Herzog film
Fitzcarraldo (1982). German director Herzog would later assume a more integral role in reestablishing the Brazilian national opera to a semblance of its fin-de-siècle eminence with his 1994 production of
Il Guarany in Bonn, Germany, staged two years later at Washington Opera, both starring Plácido Domingo, and conducted by the Brazilian-born John Neschling; and of Wagner’s
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 pretentiousnessor perhaps because of themthe glory days of grand opera in the Amazon lasted barely a decade, and 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 erected still stand, to serve as reminders of their misguided extravagance.
Act Two, Scene Three: Other Temples of Worship
This was but a temporary setback, for opera as a viable art form in Brazil managed to survive well into the
mid-20th Century, as the focus would shift from the undeveloped Northern interior to
the progressive Southeast.
With coffee having supplanted rubber as the cash crop of preference, the nouveau riche
barões do café (coffee barons) now longed to flaunt their own newfound 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 house in Rio de Janeiro seeing completion in 1909, and São Paulo’s version being anointed in 1911, in the very center of old downtown,
and based on the classic Beaux Arts design of the Paris Opéra, which was in keeping with the period esthetic of admiration for, and emulation of, all things European.
According to the historical brochures of both houses, they 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."
The growing Italian population, which 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 flavorsomewhat accurately portrayed in the late-nineties soap opera
Terra Nostraand 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, and it soon became a major stopover point on every
important artist’s South American leg of their world tour. The
Via Sacra of performance venues for any great singer started with the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, and would then move on to Rio de
Janeiro, finally concluding in São Paulo.
The 1930s were relatively lean years for opera in the region, but the postwar period of the mid- to late forties, up through and including the fifties, proved to be an enormous boon time, as
Brazil played host to a marvelous assortment of opera performers, conductors, directors and producers, typically of Italian extraction.
Among the principal guest artists who appeared in both houses at one time or other were sopranos Maria Callas, Victoria De Los Angeles, Magda Olivero, Antonietta Stella, and Renata
Tebaldi; mezzos Fedora Barbieri, Adriana Lazzarini, and Giulietta Simionato; tenors Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Beniamino Gigli, Gianni Poggi, Tito Schipa, and Ferruccio
Tagliavini; 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, and Tullio Serafin; and the American Verdi specialist, baritone Leonard Warren, billed as the very Latinate-sounding Leonardo Veronese, alongside soprano Elisabetta
Barbato and native-Brazilian singer Reis da Silva in
Unfortunately for opera, Brazil’s capital was moved in 1960 from the festival atmosphere of Rio 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 mid-eighties, but due to perpetual funding problems, constant uncertainty over the economy, and
the precarious political situation in the country during the early nineties, 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 opera houses (i.e. Herzog’s
Tannhäuser) and scattershot performances of standard repertory items
(Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Turandot, Die
Walküre) mixed with additional Brazilian fare (Gomes’
Fosca and Il Guarany, Guarnieri’s
Pedro Malazarte) have conspired to keep the hope alive in Brazil for better
opera days ahead.
Sources & Recommended Reading:
* "Arturo Toscanini,"
* "Assis PachecoBiografia," www.terravista.pt/Copacabana/5410/biogra.htm,
* "Brazil Web Art: Teatro," www.brazilwebart.com.br/teatro_inicio.html,
* Ching Chang, "In Review: Rio de Janeiro,"
Opera News, New York, October 2001.
* Gutmann, Peter, "Toscanini, the Recorded Legacy: The Beginning,"
* "Leopoldo Miguez," Academia Brasileira de Música, www.abmusica.org.br/patr23.htm,
* Page, Joseph A., The
Brazilians, Addison-Wesley Publishing, Reading, Massachusetts, 1995.
* "Paulo Fortes: Biografia," www.paulofortes.mus.br/biografia1/htm,
* Radil, Amy, "Letter From Rio,"
Opera News, New York, October 2002.
* Sachs, Harvey, Toscanini, Prima Publishing, September 1995.
* "South America: Opera," http://188.8.131.52/archives/593/SamerOpera.593.htm,
* "Teatro da Paz: 120 Anos," www.uol.com.br/amazonview/view14/teatro.htm,
* "Theatro MunicipalHistórico," www.prodam.sp.gov.br/theatro/historia/tmhist,
* Warrack, John, and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of
Opera, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1992, updated 1994.
Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to
Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. In January 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music,
especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic films. You can email your comments to
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