Home South AmericaBrazil Teatro Amazonas: the rubber barons’ theatre of dreams

Teatro Amazonas: the rubber barons’ theatre of dreams

by Bernard O'Shea
Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, seen from the front.
It’s fun treading the boards in the Teatro Amazonas, the prime urban attraction in Manaus, a city that’s had dramas in many acts.

What would Manaus look like today if it hadn’t been for an act of outrageous biopiracy some 150 years ago? It’s something to ponder as you gaze upon the elegant Teatro Amazonas, the most striking remnant of the Brazilian city’s era of boisterous extravagance, when it was the king of the rubber industry.

The stories of the rubber barons’ wealth are astonishing:
Manaus, situated on the Amazon where it is met by the Rio Negro, became the opulent heart of the rubber trade. Within a few short years Manaus had Brazil’s first telephone system, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and an electric grid for a city of a million, though it had a population of only 40,000. Vast fortunes were made by individuals, and “flaunting wealth became sport. Rubber barons lit cigars with $100 bank notes and slaked the thirst of their horses with silver buckets of chilled French champagne. Their wives, disdainful of the muddy waters of the Amazon, sent linens to Portugal to be laundered…” The citizens of Manaus “were the highest per capita consumers of diamonds in the world.” – Rainforest-focused website Mongabay, quoting One River author Wade Davis.

A red carpet laid out in the ballroom of the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil
Red carpet treatment in the Salão Nobre, where the pillars represent the trees of the rainforest. Photo: Bernard O’Shea

Only the best will do

No expense was spared in the building of the Teatro Amazonas, which was inaugurated on December 31, 1896, after 15 years of construction. Imported materials include:

  • 36,000 ceramic tiles from Alsace, for the colourful dome
  • 198 crystal chandeliers from Italy
  • Carrara marble from Italy for the stairs, columns and statues
  • 1200 panels of Amazonian timber, for the ballroom floor

The first performance took place on January 7, 1897, with tenor Enrico Caruso – then aged 23 – starring in the opera La Gioconda by Amilcare Ponchielli. Caruso would go on to become one of the most popular recording artists of his time.

The stalls in the upper levels of the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus
The lavish interior of the lyre-shaped theatre. Photo: Bernard O’Shea

Stolen botanical treasure

By then, though, the seeds of Manaus’s economic decline had already been sown. In 1876, in highly controversial and probably illegal circumstances, English explorer Henry Wickham shipped 70,000 rubber tree seeds to England. Only 2700 germinated in Kew Gardens, but it was enough to transplant the rubber industry to Asia, where costs were much lower. Manaus’s rubber barons soon had to kiss their $100 bill cigar lighters goodbye. It was sobering times, too, for their horses, which had to make do with slurping plain old drinking water.

Perhaps the “plant thief” Wickham (as some view him) did the world’s most precious rainforest a favour by curbing Manaus’s growth. In 1900, the city’s population was about 70,000, compared to Sao Paulo’s 240,000. Today the figures are Manaus 2.2 million, greater Sao Paulo – now Brazil’s economic powerhouse – has 22 million.

For much of its life, the Teatro Amazonas must have felt like the loneliest building in the city; it’s perched on a hill, about 2km from the waterfront, in a large square that’s well sheltered from traffic. It was seen as a folly, a relic from the past trying to find its way in the modern world. For decades, not one performance was staged there. In the 1970s, it suffered the indignity of having its vibrant exterior (originally pink, then blue) painted a dull grey. The generals of the ruling military junta of the time wanted to give government buildings a stern look.

A cheerful comeback

Today, the Teatro Amazonas is a much happier place. In 1990 it was refurbished, the walls were repainted pink, and opera returned to the stage. The star of the reopening night was none other than Placido Domingo in Bizet’s Carmen. In 1997 a resident orchestra, the Amazonas Filarmônica, was formed, and it’s still going strong. The venue now hosts regular concerts and an annual opera festival. Visitors stream in for guided tours.

The theatre is cosy and curvaceous, thanks to its lyre-like shape and seating capacity of only 701 (yes, an odd number!). It was modelled on the interior of the sumptuous Palais Garnier in Paris, and French accents abound. Look up at the painting on the ceiling and you’ll imagine you’re underneath the Eiffel Tower. The three upper levels of balcony stalls give the theatre a towering personality.

The highlight of the tour is the Salão Nobre (Noble Room). Here, under the glittering chandeliers of Murano glass flowers mounted on bronze stems, the rubber barons would rub shoulders. Dotted around the hallways and smaller rooms are exhibits of notable costumes from past performances. They include an autographed pair of ballet slippers belonging to Margot Fonteyn, who danced in the theatre in 1975.

On the top floor there is an enormous, 30-000 piece Lego replica of the theatre. It seems oddly out of place amid all the historical refinery, but gives you an eye-level view of the dome’s intricate patterns. The model was a gift from Denmark in the early 1970s, and its walls are military junta grey. The theatre’s much prettier in pink.

Serene spots in the city

It’s tempting to spend more time outside the theatre than in. The colourful restaurants around the square are a magnet, an oasis of tranquillity in a city that can seem grimy, noisy and frenetic. The square, the Largo de São Sebastião, became our ‘go to’ place, when really we should have seen more of the city. Nevertheless, it’s a gloriously surreal feeling, dining al fresco in front of this amazing theatre in the heart of the Amazon.

A popular meeting point in the square is the Monument Abertura dos Portos (Opening of the Ports Monument). Built in 1900, it commemorates political events of 1866 when the Amazon River ports were opened up to foreign trade. Like the theatre, most of its parts – marble, bronze, granite – were imported from Italy.

The imposing female figure bearing a torch atop the monument represents the Amazon River. Her left hand rests on the shoulder of the god Mercury, a symbol of commerce and trade. At the base are the prows of ships from the four corners of the world – Asia, America, Africa and Europe. (Australia, it seems, doesn’t have corner status.)

The nearby church, Escritório Paroquial de São Sebastião, built in 1888, is well worth a look-in. Don’t be put off by its forbidding grey facade; inside it is spacious and light, and beautifully decorated.

Lovely neighbours: the yellow Palácio da Justiça do Amazonas and the Teatro Amazonas. Photo: Bernard O’Shea

Explore the elegant neighbourhood

Behind the Teatro Amazonas on Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro is another striking classical building dating back to the city’s rubber heyday, the Palácio da Justiça do Amazonas. Completed in 1900, it served as the headquarters of the state judiciary, but was transformed in 2006 into a cultural centre. It’s open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 9 to 5 and entrance is free.

Eduard Ribeiro was the state governor at the time the Palácio and the Teatro Amazonas were being built. His former residence around the corner, at 322 Rua José Clemente, became a museum in 2010, the Museu Casa Eduardo Ribeiro.

Manaus was a host city for the 2014 World Cup football tournament in Brazil, and benefited greatly from government investment in tourism infrastructure. A number of “palaces” around the city – the grand homes of former rubber barons – have been spruced up and opened up to the public. You’ll find plenty more to tempt you here. TTW

Did you know…

The Teatro Amazonas has a cousin of sorts, the Teatro da Paz (Peace Theatre) in Belem, 1300km to the east near the mouth of the Amazon. Their histories are very similar. The two ‘Amazonia Theatres’ were submitted for UNESCO World Heritage consideration in 2015.

Bernard O’Shea visited Manaus at his own expense. See Visit Brasil for more on the Amazonas region.

See also

TTW’s adventures at an eco lodge on the Amazon River
A funny thing happened with the dirty laundry in Manaus
The colonial gems of Brazil

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