By Joe Lopes
On the evening of May 7, 2005, darkness engulfed the ornate auditorium of the Teatro Amazonas Opera House in the northern city of Manaus, the only sound to be heard – the primeval groan of a low, E-flat bass note – emanated surreptitiously from the theater’s packed orchestra pit.

No, it was not another power outage so typical of the region, but was in effect the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), the first of his four-part, sixteen-hour Norse saga, known collectively to fans as The Ring of the Nibelung – a cautionary pre-Tolkien tale that ambitiously tracks the corruption of a mythical world-gone-wrong through its chaotic destruction and redemptive rebirth.

At the curtain’s rise, three nubile nymphs, called Rhinemaidens,” are seen to frolic off the waters of the onstage riverbank. They are soon joined by the gloomy figure of Alberich, the Nibelung troll, sung by Brazilian bass Pepes do Valle. Seeking to catch one of them off guard, he is teased then aroused by the maidens’ obvious charms.

Despite his loathsome visage, the sprites continue their amorous play by deliberately tempting the poor creature to a watery grave.

Disgusted by their taunts, the lustful gnome resolves to wreak vengeance on them: if he cannot steal their hearts, he gathers, then their fabulous treasure trove will be his instead. Renouncing love forever, the Nibelung plunges into the depths and swims off with the horde of gold, leaving the Rhinemaidens behind to mourn the loss of their luster.

To solidify his power-base, Alberich later coerces his minions into forging an all-powerful ring – the object of each character’s singular pursuit and the ruinous cause of their downfall.

Lttle did the audience of eight-hundred strong realize it was the German composer himself who started the by-now familiar trend of lowering a theater’s houselights, in order to force his public to pay closer attention to the works at hand – works that Wagner had long desired to have performed in a house built to his own exacting standards.

The locale chosen was a picturesque tract of land a brief walking distance from the town of Bayreuth, a humble, middle-class burgh ideally situated in the hills of northern Bavaria. Thus it was that in 1876 the celebrated annual Summer Music Festival was inaugurated there.

By contrast, Manaus at the time was but a hollowed-out clearing in the middle of the tropical forest. Today, it is a bustling business and commercial center, thanks to the so-called Zona Franca (Free Trade Zone), with a population of over a million and a half.

Sill, the significance of a German-language Ring cycle, a supremely challenging endeavor for any opera company – whose extra scenic and musical demands have tested the mettle of lesser theaters – performed in its entirety on Brazilian soil, cannot possibly be overlooked. This was indeed a monumental undertaking of truly historic proportions.

The expected budget for the event, reported to be around 3.2 million reais, or US$ 1.6 million – the equivalent of one American greenback for every resident in the Amazon capital – would have to make due not only for the Ring but for other works anticipated for 2005, including a run of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

With that in mind, two complete cycles were planned: one for May 7, 8, 10 and 12, and the other for May 14, 15, 17 and 19.

For the past few seasons, however, single performances of the various Ring components have been fully mounted and staged in Manaus, with Die Walkre (The Valkyrie), the second opera in the cycle, the first up in 2002, followed by Siegfried in 2003, and Gtterdmmerung (Twilight of the Gods) in 2004.

This year’s new production of Das Rheingold (made possible by state grants and private-sector donations) was unveiled only as an integral part of the whole.

“It was a kind of test to see how the Brazilian voices were going to function,” Luiz Fernando Malheiro, principal conductor and artistic director of the Amazonas Opera Festival, told Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. “Any apprehensions I may have had were ultimately unjustified.”

Although heavily billed as the first complete Brazilian Ring, in actuality the Festival’s “low-budget and low-tech” approach is only the second time Wagner’s epic tetralogy was presented in the country: the first one, in 1922, took place in Rio de Janeiro and was done by a visiting German troupe contracted by legendary opera impresario Walter Mocchi.

But how did the seeming incompatibility of a “Ring in the rainforest” come about? The answer is deceptively simple and can be traced back to the naãvet of one Aidan Lang, the show’s forty-seven-year-old British-born director, whose previous experiences boast of stints in Manaus and São Paulo, as well as appearances with Glyndebourne’s touring wing, the Netherlands’ Maastricht Festival, and the Buxton Festival in Engand, which he still runs.

“Malheiro and I were talking about what we should do next one year and he suggested something German. ‘What about the Ring?’ I joked. Well, that’ll teach me.”

A Formidable Task

The task at hand was a formidable one, to be sure, and not to be taken lightly, considering the stifling working conditions they all had to endure (and sweat in), and the high degree of planning undoubtedly involved with the project itself.

“If I offered this to Welsh or Scottish Operas, they would tell me to think again,” he claimed. Remarkably, though, the surprising success of the series was well worth the extra effort.

“To be able to do a Ring cycle here, for an audience that has never seen one, is absolutely extraordinary,” an exuberant Lang declared. “It’s the ultimate gig in the ultimate place,” even if that place turned out to be a rather steamy tropical jungle.

Canadian tenor Alan Woodrow, who sang the role of the young Siegfried, concurred with the director’s views: “The climate here is very hot and very humid, but I think that because of that you can sing well. After all, singers inhale steam to help get their voices into good shape, but with the ninety-percent humidity here, you don’t have to do that.”

Notwithstanding the theater’s on-again/off-again air-conditioning system, nature sometimes has a way of taking its own precarious path, especially with regard to regional lumber practices.

“They’re very good with wood,” said Lang of the stagehands, “but we do have to remind the set-builders to use screws. Because of the humidity, nails tend to pop out.”

Other exotic hindrances were almost as life threatening, such as the incident involving Japanese soprano Eiko Senda, who suffered a debilitating allergy attack just moments before the curtain, thanks to a particularly noxious variety of native spider. A massive dose of antihistamine was administered to Senda in time for her first stage cue.

In spite of the potential hazards of opera in the Amazon wilderness, the final bill for the two cycles went blissfully unnoticed by most patrons: with the best seats in the house going for a top price of US$ 20.00 per ticket, all of the individual performances were quickly sold out.

Equally attractive to the foreign press were the production’s raked-platform stage setting, complete with scientific and molecular dcor (both cost-cutting, space-saving devices), and its pro-ecological message.

“I’m especially proud of the helmets, which are made of papier-mch,” boasted Ashley Martin-Davis, the British set and costume designer. “They look like aluminum, and of course the singers love them because they have almost no weight.”

In a land where the average person’s monthly wage can be just as skimpy as Rio’s scantily-clad Carnaval participants, that spoke volumes for the locals’ creativity and resourcefulness, in the face of ever-mounting political and economic pressures.

Said Mr. Martin-Davis: “(It) taught me that if you have the labor and the ingenuity, you can always make the materials work for you.”

Nevertheless, the sense of being a part of something so bizarre as to border on the surreal was a difficult one to shake, even for some of the veteran cast members.

“When I first came to Manaus in 2002, it was definitely a very big new experience for me,” voiced American soprano Maria Russo, an opera singer from upstate-New York who played Wotan’s favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brnnhilde.

“It’s extreme. Even now, it sometimes seems amazing that we are actually doing this here. I’ve done a lot of Rings, and this is definitely not your ordinary situation.”

Copyright 2005 by Josmar F Lopes

To read previous articles by Joe Lopes click below:

Brazil’s Musical Polyglots: What Was That You Were Singing?
Did Bossa Nova Kill Opera in Brazil?

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