Opera shows up in some improbable places. Being a lover of classic movies, I watched Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a 1982 German film about a would-be rubber baron (played with wonderful verve by Klaus Kinski) who undertakes an epic river voyage on the upper tributaries of the Amazon near the Peruvian city of Iquitos. It’s a marvellously quirky movie, if somewhat on the long side at 158 minutes: beautifully filmed, splendidly acted and representing a series of events so bizarre that - yes, it’s based on a true story. You couldn’t dream this stuff up.
To my complete surprise, the movie opened with its eponymous hero arriving (after a series of setbacks) at a performance of Ernani by the great Enrico Caruso in Manaus, the Brazilian city deep into the Amazon that was undergoing a huge rubber boom in the 1890s. It turns out that the reason Fitzcarraldo wants to make is fortune is to fulfil a dream of building an opera house in Iquitos and hiring Caruso to come and open it. Throughout his epic river voyage, Fitzcarraldo plays recordings of Caruso on a wind-up gramophone, and one of the weirdest of the movie’s images is that of the giant river cruiser set against a background of deep jungle, its upper deck occupied by an ancient wind-up gramophone blaring out Bella Figlia del Amore from the third act of Rigoletto.
Herzog won the Best Director award for Fitzcarraldo in the Cannes Film Festival of 1982. Nearly thirty years later, it remains a treat - and, I suspect, one not known to many opera lovers!
And by the way, the Amazonas Theatre in Manaus still hosts the Festival Amazonas de Ópera every April.