From the 12th floor of a so-called Taj Mahal hotel, the horizon receded several dozen kilometers and revealed the Teatro Amazonas in its secular surroundings: the vast Negro river to the west, preceded by a curious mixture of historic houses and Manaus, with vegetation tropical rainforest of the Amazon and towering housing or office towers.
Far away, the modern bridge over the Rio Negro and a streak of marginal habitation crept in, the farther away, the more shapeless and cramped.
We weren't staying at that hotel so we extended the favor of the panoramic climb even further. It was enough for us to watch the nightfall settle in, the square filling up with people and cheering, samba or sertanejo resounding, terraces at the pine cone flooded with beer and conversations without ceremony or end.
The increasingly Cosmopolitan Capital of the Amazon
These days, Manaus is this dammed, Euro-tropical world and much more. It expanded from its riverside and invaded 11.500 km2 of the Amazon forest.
A small retinue of intrepid settlers afraid of the vastness in which they had been forced and, in particular, of hostile natives, became a multi-ethnic and multicultural population of 2.600.000 souls given up to the jungle, the urban of Manaus, not the natural one in around. Anyone who comes to these stops quickly wonders what made them possible.
After the restoration of independence and the old colonial rivalry, the Portuguese saw themselves as beneficiaries of the Iberian Union, which they took advantage of to take over the interior of Brazil. They also remained alert against the pretensions of their usual Hispanic rivals and those of the Dutch, these, with headquarters in Suriname.
In 1668, they built the fort of São José da Barra do Rio Negro, in the heart of the Amazon and next to the confluence of two of its most important arteries, the Negro and the Solimões. They built it in rock and clay with the help of natives and mestizos. Many ended up settling there.
Once the Portuguese farmers and their slaves arrived, the population increased exponentially. In such a way, that several missionary groups lined up in the evangelical investment of the chapel of Nª Senhora da Conceição, which was named the patron saint of the village in the meantime.
The Late Afternoon Entertainment at Praça de São Sebastião
On another late afternoon, the garden benches at Praça de São Sebastião are occupied by young, white-skinned friends, with almost black skin, almond-shaped eyes and lank hair, like those of indigenous people from so many native tribes in the surrounding jungle.
A middle-aged Chinese couple scolds their children in Mandarin, they ignore them and scold them in Brazilian Portuguese. Several stalls at the mini-fair that were installed there are operated by small Indian traders or those with roots in the Middle East.
Bar do Armando, with its big heads from the Bumba Meu Boi festival and a large Portuguese flag, side by side with the Brazilian flag, among others, smaller, from other countries, belongs to the Church but has long been explored by a Portuguese family.
While serving beers at the counter, the employee Oriane explains us better how. “Ser Armando passed away some time ago. Now who got the bar was the daughter. But his family was real patrician. I believe they came from the side of… what's it called… oh that's it, it's Coimbra.”
A cultural festival evolves in front of the theater. There, a youth choir group sings recent Disney musical hits: Rei Leão, Pocahontas and the like. Around this time, the mass ends at the Church of São Sebastião. Believers join the crowd and surrender to the profane call of the night.
As sacred as it was inconvenient, the priest had ordered an explosive closure of the Eucharist. Rockets burst above the temple, illuminating its pointed tower and the bells in no less hysterical peal.
In a duet, the roar of dry gunpowder and the chime of the belfry make the night a misery, especially the life of the choir who, with so much noise, sings pro puppet. Inside the theatre, on the other hand, a well-heeled audience delights, without interference, in a grandiose opera.
The Symbol of Wealth Theater Borracheira da Amazonia
Teatro Amazonas has long been the Amazonian building of buildings. The most important civilization symbol in the entire state. And yet, it was a mere Amazon tree – the hevea brasiliensis – that made it possible and that, for more than a century, made Manaus an improbable “Paris in the Jungle".
In the XNUMXth century, several colonists and scientists had already noticed how the natives used the solidified sap of this tree to waterproof shoes and clothing, among other purposes.
The first samples arrived in France and its European use was inaugurated in 1803, in suspenders, bra elastics and others. Later, the American company Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process and rubber provided the tires for vehicles that Ford soon sold en masse.
After the Cabanagem, the population of Manaus had increased, but the dense and soaked jungle around, the inexistence of metals or precious stones and the 1600km located from the mouth of the Amazon and the coast prevented its development.
Until, at the end of the XNUMXth century, the culmination of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America demanded more and more rubber, a hyper-valuable commodity unique to the Amazon.
Rubber: the Raw Material that Changed the Amazon and the World
European and American investors flocked to the jungle of which Manaus was the only entrepot worthy of the name. They settled in the city or on farms. They bought vast patches of jungle that they filled with rubber tree plantations.
Eager for manpower, they forced the indigenous people to ensure extraction. In certain areas, the natives – little cut out for submission and repetitive tasks that made no sense to them – did not resist slavery, brutality and the diseases spread by the colonists.
They died in their thousands. Indifferent, the new Rubber Barons limited themselves to employing a wave of newcomers eager to submit to those ordeals.
In 1877, a terrible drought hit the Brazilian Northeast, especially the state of Ceará. Many Northeasterners migrated to what they dreamed of as “Land of Fortune”. There they lived in precarious huts on the outskirts of the city and, given the illusory suffocation of latex, continued to enrich the barons. Manaus benefited by table.
The Afrancesada Ostentation of the Millionaire Manaus
It was promoted to the rubber capital of the world, it was equipped with electricity and many other luxuries, before many European cities. French and French manners were the ostentatious fashion of the time. Anyone who did not speak French or behaved like that felt diminished in front of fellow citizens.
When we walk through the ancient, cosmopolitan and overcrowded streets of Manaus, proof of this old Francophony is quite obvious in the architecture and even in the names of establishments from other times. Among others, a facade of a building on the corner, all of it lacy, imposes on us a beautiful and yellow "au bon marche".
Under the pseudonym Robin Furneaux, Frederick Robin Smith, a British historian, described the abundance of this period. “No extravagance, however absurd, stopped the rubber barons. If one bought a huge yacht, another showed lions trained on his property and a third would give champagne to his horses.”
As we are guided through the corners of the Amazon opera-theatre, we get a better understanding of how the most sumptuous of these whims turned out to be. It was proposed in 1881, in the middle of the Belle Époque. Proposing it António Fernandes Junior, who had the vision of a cultural jewel in the heart of the Amazon rainforest and got the approval of the House of Representatives.
The project was carried out by an engineering and architecture office in Lisbon and the construction was carried out by an Italian architect. To match, La Gioconda, by Amilcare Ponchielli, was inaugurated.
1912 – The Beginning of an Inevitable Decline
When the year 1912 arrived, the “Brazilian” rubber barons could not even witness the greatest of its tragedies. Unknown to anyone, the English explorer Sir Henry Wickam transposed tens of thousands of rubber tree feet to British territories with a climate similar to that of the Amazon, less isolated and with reduced production costs, by comparison. The Brazilian monopoly quickly withered.
Addicted to opulence, Manaus found itself in decline and abandoned by all who could leave. The theater closed for most of the XNUMXth century, in the shadow of the collapse of lighting that, before provided by generators, started to be fed, by hand and lamp by lamp, with fat from the infamous Amazonian manatees.
The resplendent houses were left with time and humidity, the same chlorophyll vapor that makes us sweat a good sweat as we admire the delicious decay of the city's riverside-port area: the bustle of the Adolpho Lisboa Municipal Market (baptized in honor of one of the most esteemed mayors of Manaus) and the strong fleet of ships that ensure transport along the river arteries of the Amazon.
Meanwhile, World War II broke out. The Nippon Empire occupied the main Asian rubber producing territories. Thus, it triggered a second Amazon boom that lasted little longer than the conflict and did not prevent the worsening of a demographic vacuum in the Amazon region.
The Free Trade Zone and the Recent Recovery of Manaus
Twenty years later, a Brazilian government more attentive and obsessed with the modernization of the country's borders turned Manaus into a free zone. It gave it strong financial incentives and made it accessible by a network of new roads. Thus, it generated an investment flow that attracted millions of new inhabitants, as well as investment, both national and foreign.
Manaus has confirmed itself as one of the most populous cities in the nation and one of its main tourist centers. It even proved to be important enough to host the ever controversial and wasteful construction of a new football stadium and assume itself as one of the venues of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Numerous industries have replaced the formerly exclusive export of rubber and now ensure the city's constant expansion.
Manaus Theater's New Fame
Theater, that one, regained its aura, in the beginning of the 80's. Around that time, the director Werner Herzog released it in his epic “Fitzcarraldo”. Now worshiped, the film was about Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irish entrepreneur and opera lover living in Iquitos, when this Peruvian city was also thriving on the export of rubber.
More romantic than entrepreneurial, Fitzgerald pursued a lunatic plan to build an opera in the image of the most prestigious in Europe in a jungle area with atrocious river access, inhabited by intractable indigenous people.
Without wanting to reveal the outcome, from that profitable era onwards, Iquitos evolved into the Peruvian rubber capital and, later, the Peruvian Amazon. Even so, today, it is home to less than 500.000 inhabitants.
The only Amazon theater-opera South American is the Teatro Amazonas.