Grand Opera House In Brazil Still Sings

This glorious theater put the Amazon city of Manaus on the international map.

It has withstood 101 years of searing heat, unforgiving humidity, and relentless tropical downpours. The city surrounding it has grown from an island of 30,000 inhabitants to a South American metropolis of 1 million people.

Yet one step inside the pink-and-white grande dame of monuments in the Brazilian capital of Manaus, and the cool air and opulent appointments convince the visitor that Teatro Amazonas is as much the refuge from the tropical elements today as it was when it opened to an astounded audience back in 1896.

Built with the fabulous wealth that grew out of the discovery and harvesting of rubber in the Amazon forests, the opera house was meant to put Manaus on the international map - and it surely did.

The privileged spectators who filled the theater's 700 caned chairs (now upholstered in velvet) on opening night must have marveled at the central auditorium's Italian crystal chandelier and the four-legged rotunda frieze - painted to give the viewer the thrilling impression of being beneath Paris's still-new Eiffel Tower.

There was in fact no end to the visual wonders the building displayed. In addition to the delicate moldings and marble busts adorning walls and ceilings, there were murals depicting the Amazon's exotic flora and fauna.

Continuing the mix of European design and technology with the Amazon region's inspiration and abundance, the mezzanine floor was made of alternating panels of ivory and mahogany woods. The unique floor pattern recalled the nearby "meeting of the waters," the point where the opaque-black Rio Negro on which Manaus sits meets the creamy-caramel Amazon River (or what Brazilians at that point call the Solimoes).

Off the mezzanine, an orchestra played waltzes during entrances in a muraled, golden ballroom. Cast iron stairs from England carried patrons between floors, and always each level offered more crystal lighting - to emphasize the fact that this secluded river port was the first Brazilian city with electricity.

(Manaus was also the first South American city with a tramway, running on hydro-generated electricity.)

The Teatro Amazonas was the inaugural theater for the Brazilian opera "O Guarani."

"The theater was built in 12 years, with private money, at a time when Manaus was the richest city in Brazil" because of the rubber monopoly that fed the city's coffers, says a tour guide - a bit wistfully it seems - as he leads two wide-eyed tourists through the cool halls.

But instead of a precursor of the wealth Manaus might have continued to generate, the Amazonas turned out to be more of an odd epitome of what ended up as a fleeting half-century of glory.

In the years preceding World War II, seeds from the Amazon's cash-cow rubber trees were smuggled to Malaysia, where vast plantations were planted. Brazil lost its rubber monopoly, and Manaus lost its place in the gilt set's sun.

To keep ahead of the ravages of the tropics, the Amazonas has been renovated four times: in 1929, 1962, 1974, and in 1989.

In 1990, a ventilating system was installed with air conditioning, which now is turned on two hours before a performance.

A visitor comments that such careful attention to a grand monument suggests that Manaus, today a duty-free zone and river port for goods from four Amazon countries, is still a wealthy city. The guide, whose job apparently stops at depicting a glorious past, only smiles.

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