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Performances

Stained Glass at Theatro Municipal of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Photo: Thomaz and Deborah Moore)
28 Dec 2006

BARBATO: O Cientista (The Scientist)

Rio de Janeiro, as the capital of the Empire and later the Republic of Brazil, had an extensive history of opera during the 19th century, well-documented by newspapers and magazines of the day, which included the conducting debut of Arturo Toscanini in a local performance of Aida in 1888, described in the memoirs of Brazilian composer and entrepreneur Artur Napoleão.

O Cientista (The Scientist)

Composed and conducted by Silvio Barbato; libretto by Bernardo Vilhena; direction by Eduardo Alvares; scenography, projections and lighting by Eduardo Alvares; costumes by Marcelo Olinto; chorus master, Maurílio dos Santos Costa; Chorus and Symphonic Orchestra of the Theatro Municipal. Sebastião Teixeira (Oswaldo Cruz); Claudio Riccitelli (Emilia); Marcos Liesenberg (Salles Guerra – Act 1, Carlos Chagas – Act 2); Lucia Bueno (A Woman); Lício Bruno (Rodrigues Alves).
Performed Dec. 8, 10, 13, 15, and 17, 2006.

 

The edifices hosting these performances have succumbed to the ravages of time long since, though documents and scores relating to operatic life in Rio from this period are still to be found in local libraries.

The early years of the Republic (established by a military revolt which sent the Imperial family into exile, as a reaction against the abolition of slavery in 1888) saw an intense effort to modernize the capital. The population had been growing considerably as a result of the exodus of the freed slaves from the coffee plantations of the state of Rio, who went to the capital in search of better economic opportunities. They were joined by immigrants from abroad, particularly from Portugal and Italy.

The first decade of the 20th century saw a number of large scale efforts for modernization in Rio. These included improvements to the infrastructure of the port (which would have 3.5 kilometers of docks), the construction of broad avenues, particularly the Avenida Central (now known as Avenida Rio Branco), and the consequent demolition of large numbers of tenements in the center of the city. The opening of Avenida Central would make possible the construction of an imposing complex of public buildings in the area now known as Cinelandia, including the National School for the Fine Arts (now the National Museum for the Fine Arts), the National Library, and the Theatro Municipal, modeled after the Paris Opéra, and built sparing no expense, with the finest materials imported from Europe.

Rio's tropical location, and the extensive wetlands by the bay, had negative implications for public health, with regular outbreaks of yellow fever (transmitted by mosquitoes), bubonic plague (transmitted by rates), smallpox, and tuberculosis. President Rodrigues Alves (president, 1903-1906) entrusted to Dr. Oswaldo Cruz, who had studied at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, the task of dealing with these problems. He began with campaigns to kill mosquitoes and exterminate rats. In 1904, with Rio facing an epidemic of smallpox, Cruz proposed obligatory vaccination, and it was approved by the government. Unlike his previous campaigns, this one met widespread and often violent resistance by a frightened population, known as the Vaccine Revolt, and finally obligatory vaccination was suspended. Today, his work is revered in Rio, with an avenue in the South Zone, and a suburb in the North Zone, and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation for public health all bearing his name.

Silvio Barbato's opera The Scientist is not so much a music drama as a tableau vivant presenting representative scenes from the life of this great Brazilian. Act I, Scene I reveals Cruz meditating alone on his mission as doctor. Later he is joined by his wife Emilia and friend Salles Guerra, and they sing (in French) of his departure for Paris. Scene II presents Lapa, a center of bohemian life and prostitution at the time. Scene III shows a religious procession asking for relief from the plague.

Act II is notably less static and more dramatic. In Scene I, the President, Rodrigues Alves, sings of the necessity of vaccination, with mocking responses from a sort of Greek chorus, seated on stage. In Scene II we see the effects of the revolt on the Cruz family. Scene III presents a group of capoeiristas (capoeira is a Brazilian martial art) in the favela of Providencia. The opera closes in Scene IV with Cruz, alone once more, walking upstage into the ocean.

One might think that a country famed worldwide for the quality of its televised dramas might likewise produce stageworthy sung dramas for the opera house. The static quality of the libretto, choosing to represent a life, rather than an episode in the life, is the chief problem. Barbato's music mixes a restrained modernism (most effective in the solo-chorus exchanges between President Rodrigues Alves and his critics) with pastiches of Brazilian popular genres (it must be noted that even if they were less artistically ambitious, they were warmly welcomed by the audience, especially the capoeira). The least effective moment for the work was the tedious on-stage solo saxophone in Act I, Scene II, in which the orchestra is not heard for what seems like an eternity (and worse, before it re-enters, the sax is joined on the scene by an accordion). The excellent chorus of the Theatro Municipal is generally heard offstage, muffling its impact, and causing problems with its coordination with the orchestra.

Of the singers, those making the most impact were bass Sebastião Teixeira as Cruz, and the excellent baritone Lício Bruno as Rodrigues Alves (he had turned in a stellar Papageno earlier in the season). The scenery and lighting were modern and effective (including projections), and with the blue fabric waves of the ocean in the closing scene making a memorable impression.

Tom Moore

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