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Brazil

Day 6: Manaus

 
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'The Opening of the Ports'. Bronze statue reminds us that Manaus was once at the centre of international trade.
Michael Palin - BrazilAnyone who visits Amazônia must at some point pass through Manaus. It's the capital of Amazonas State, a major transport hub, with a busy airport, docks and a brand-new, four-kilometre-long (two and a half miles) road bridge over the Rio Negro. Its population is growing fast and has just topped the two million mark. Declared a Free Trade Zone in 1967 Manaus has become Brazil's biggest manufacturer of white goods and electronic appliances. People come from hundreds of kilometres away to buy their cheap TVs here. And from beneath the nose of its rival Belém, it's won the right to host the only World Cup games to be played in Amazônia in 2014.

Manaus has known the good times before. A hundred years ago it was at the centre of the rubber boom and, briefly, one of the wealthiest cities in all the Southern Hemisphere; the first city in Brazil to have trolley-buses and the second to have electric light. Then the rubber boom ended, as fast as it had begun, and for many years Manaus went back to being a hot, sticky backwater which no one wanted to visit. The bars and brothels emptied and the grand old buildings became too expensive to maintain. Apart from one. An icon that bestrides two boom times, the internationally renowned opera house. The first thing I discover as I stand marvelling at its creamy three-storey facade is that it's not actually called the Opera House. It's called the Teatro Amazonas.

But the confusion is understandable. When it came to spending money, the Brazilian rubber barons of the 1890s looked across the Atlantic for their inspiration. Spurred on by the indefatigable ambition of the Governor, Eduardo Ribeiro, palatial houses, public buildings, clubs, bars, restaurants, banks and brothels set out to turn Manaus into the Paris of the Tropics. No self-respecting hommage to the French capital was complete without a nod to their culture and that meant, at the very least, one opera house.

They imported Scottish ironwork, English china, Portuguese architects, Italian marble, French mirrors and curtains. The only ingredients from Brazil were timber and the rubber that was used to pave the driveway outside so as to soften the sound of carriage wheels during the performance. The whole majestic edifice was opened in 1896. Governor Ribeiro, whose vision had transformed Manaus, died by his own hand in 1900, coincidentally the same year that the first Kew-raised rubber trees were planted in Malaya, marking the beginning of the end of Brazilian rubber domination and the Paris of the Tropics.

Looking at the Teatro Amazonas today, built on a mound above the attractively restored square of Largo de São Sebastião, it's hard to imagine it in hard times. Its pink and white exterior, restored fifteen years ago, glows in the sunshine, lavish detail piled on lavish detail and crowned with sumptuous stucco personifications of music and drama. In contrast to the neo-classical facade is the magnificent mosaic-tiled dome that rises behind it, less like Paris and more like a mosque in Isfahan or Tashkent.

I step inside, glad to be out of the blazing sun, and suddenly find the sweat pouring from me. Manaus is notoriously sticky – I think the reading for today was ninety-four percent humidity – and there's a problem with the air-con inside the theatre. Members of the orchestra, gathering for a rehearsal, fan themselves with their scores as they take their places on a long, deep stage. The interior is very fine indeed. The 700 seats are all separate and upholstered in plush, ruby-red velour. They're set mainly in the stalls, above and around which three narrow galleries of boxes rise in a beautifully graceful curve, giving the auditorium intimacy and grandeur at the same time. Busts of great cultural figures, Schiller, Shakespeare, Goethe, Mozart and the like, decorate the balconies. On the interior of the dome is a spectacular piece of tromp l'oeil which gives the impression that the Eiffel Tower is springing out of the roof above us.
 
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The Opera House aka Teatro Amazonas. Symbol of one golden age, hoping to herald in another.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 6: Manaus
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Manaus
  • Book page no: 36

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