Imagine! The opera Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck is playing at the restored Teatro Amazonas opera house deep in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest.
Three foreigners enter the theater lobby: Marina (an American doctor looking stylish in a long black gown), Jackie (a young Australian surfer in a tux), and Barbara (a smart Australian blond in a short cocktail dress that left nothing to the imagination).
They climb the grand stairway to the third tier boxes:
“The usher unlocked the door to their box with a heavy brass skeleton key that he wore around his neck on a velvet cord. He made a slight bow to each of them while distributing the programs. The three of them had eight red velvet chairs to choose from.
Marina leaned over the brass railing on their balcony to watch the prosperous citizens of Manaus find their way to their seats.
The inside of the house was a wedding cake, every intricately decorated layer balanced delicately on the shoulders of the one beneath it, rising up and up to a ceiling where frescoed angels parted the wandering clouds with their hands.”
—State of Wonder (p. 123). Kindle Edition.
This happens a third of the way through Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder (her 2011 follow-up to the award winning Bel Canto), and for me this is where the novel starts. It is here that Patchett’s prose picks up a tone of excitement that makes it fun to read.
This is the same opera house shown in Werner Hertzog’s epic 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo staring the amazing German actor Klaus Kinsky as a turn of the century opera lover who wants to bring famed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to the Amazon.
The movie played an important part in the research for the book. In an interview for Powell’s Book Store in Portland, Patchett said:
“I went to the Amazon, which was incredibly helpful and was not incredibly fun. I did not go to Manaus. I was supposed to go to Manaus with Renée Fleming, who had a concert at the opera house. The opera house is at the very beginning of Fitzcarraldo, the Werner Herzog movie.
I watched the beginning of that movie about 700 times while I was working on this book, to see that opera house. There’s also a great documentary called Burden of Dreams, which is about Werner Herzog and the making of Fitzcarraldo. In it, he’s just complaining and bitching and moaning about how horrible the jungle is. The camera is on him and he’s just standing in front of these trees saying, ‘This is so awful.’ I can remember watching that documentary with my computer on my lap and just typing everything he was saying, because it was so great.”
— Jill Owens, May 31, 2011
After an intermission, State of Wonder continues (it is the start of Act II):
“A woman sang the role of Orfeo in a baggy toga, her hair slicked back and caught beneath a crown of gilded leaves. She stood there center stage, a lyre in her arms to cover her breasts, and sang her sorrow to the chorus. Jackie leaned across his wife. ‘Why is it a woman?’ he whispered to Marina.
Marina dabbed her nose [she is crying with emotion] and bent in to tell him that the alternative was to find a castrato for whom the part was originally written, but a hand reached between them and thumped Jackie on the shoulder with two hard taps. ‘Quiet,’ the woman’s voice said.
Marina and the two Bovenders [Jackie and Barbara] straightened their spines as if the same small voltage had run up the carved chair legs and through the velvet seats. They began to turn, the three of them together, but the hand came back between Barbara and Marina and pointed to the stage. That was how they watched the rest of the opera, their eyes forward and their entire consciousness turned behind them to focus on Dr. Swenson.”
—State of Wonder (pp. 124-125). Kindle Edition.
Marina, Jackie and Barbara work for an American drug company that is funding fertility research in the Amazon. Dr. Swenson leads the drug research effort from an outpost deep in the Amazon rain forest on a minor tributary of the Rio Negro. Marina has been sent to evaluate Swenson’s progress because Swenson has refused to disclose the state of her research.
Marina is also deeply concerned about the fate of her lab partner, Anders, who had been evaluating Dr. Swenson’s work—Anders has been reported dead. Karen, Anders’ wife, doesn’t believe that he is dead, and she has urged Marina to investigate.
Marina sees a parallel between her duty to Karen (and Anders) and the opera:
“She knew the story of Orpheus, but it wasn’t until the singing began that she realized it was the story of her life.
She was Orfeo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back. Had Karen been able to leave the boys, she would have been Orfeo.
It was the role she [Karen] had been born to play. But Karen was in Minnesota, and Marina’s mind was filled with Anders now, their seven years of friendship, the fifty hours a week they spent charting lipids, listening to the rise and fall of each other’s breath.”
—State of Wonder (p. 124).
Of course, in the opera Amor (Cupid) intervenes and Orpheus is allowed to bring Eurydice back from Hell. The reader is thus alerted to the possibility that Marina will find Anders and she may lead him from a rain forest hell back to his home to Minnesota.
Once the opera is over, Marina and Dr. Swenson go into the jungle to the research site and the reader is introduced to the jungle tribe that is the object of the research. The jungle scenes, especially those with the natives, are exaggerated beyond belief and at times the narration takes an almost silly turn.
Throughout, I felt that the author really thought that the jungle was an irredeemably dangerous place and mortal hazards lurked everywhere. Undoubtedly this is the mood the author intended to convey, but in my judgement this is a little overdone. (Perhaps, a trip to the rain forest with a sympathetic naturalist would have moderated these fears.)
As I read, however, I was able to suspend my disbelief, relax and go with the narrative. The novel turned out to be a real page-turner, so I have to say I enjoyed it, with some reservations.
On further reflection, I would skip this novel in favor of one that treats the jungle, the Brazilian rainforest and the native tribes more sympathetically. I suggest, for example, Isabel Allende’s La Ciudad de los Bestias (The City of the Beasts), which is set in same region of the rain forest as State of Wonder.
I also recommend Fitzcarraldo for its great cinematography, direction and acting (and excellent depiction of the natives). This movie is not to be missed, but remember that Manaus has changed greatly since that movie was filmed.
Today, Manaus is the capital of the state of Amazonas. Far inland from Rio de Janiero and the Atlantic coast of Brazil, it lies at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon. It is a sprawling free trade zone and industrial center with a population of over 2 million people. Much of the forest near Manaus has been exploited for timber and other resources; there is little likelihood that any “missing tribes” exist within a day’s boat ride of the city.
The Amazon Theatre (Teatro Amazonas) is located in the heart of Manaus. It was built during the Belle Époque when fortunes were being made in the rubber boom. Construction of the Amazon Theater was first proposed in 1881. It has been restored several times, in 1929, 1974 and, most recently, in 1990, and it currently has 701 seats covered with red velvet.
The Teatro Amazonas is once again flourishing after a long hiatus. An opera in this splendid theater must be something to behold.
Day 80: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett (2011).