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/ARTS WEEKLY/MUSIC-URUGUAY: Reviving Classical Music Splendour

Raúl Pierri

MONTEVIDEO, Sep 13 2005 (IPS) - In the last few months, the classical music scene in Uruguay seems to have awakened from a long slumber, and operas like “La Bohème” by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini are raising it from the ashes in which it was left by a 12-year dictatorship, repeated economic crises and official neglect.

The capital, Montevideo, is trying to recover the prestige it enjoyed for decades, when it was one of the essential stops in South America in tours by world-famous artists, along with Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The passion for classical music and theatre in Uruguay, a small South American country of 3.2 million, has been strong since 1856, when the impoverished newly independent nation, in poor shape after years of war, nevertheless decided to build what was at the time South America’s premier opera house: the Solís Theatre.

The inauguration of the Solís put Uruguay in the vanguard of the international opera scene starting in the late 19th century, and its opera seasons could be counted among the world’s best, said journalist and music critic Barret Puig, who writes for the weekly newspaper Búsqueda.

“In fact, ‘La Bohème’ opened in Italy in February 1896 and played in Uruguay in August of that same year. That is really something, since there were no planes or electronic communications like today,” Puig told IPS.

Puccini himself visited Montevideo in August 1905, and watched a performance of his opera “Tosca” in the Solís Theatre.

The good times continued in the first few decades of the 20th century, under the administration of the Official Broadcasting, Television and Entertainment Service (SODRE), a government agency.

In the 1930s, distinguished Italian director Lamberto Baldi became the conductor of the recently created Sodre Symphonic Orchestra (OSSODRE). Thanks to his strong ties to Europe and the rest of the Americas, he brought to Montevideo the world’s leading conductors and composers.

These included Igor Stravinsky of Russia, Ottorino Respighi of Italy, Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil, Manuel María Ponce of Mexico, Aaron Copland of the United States and Paul Hindemith of Germany.

The splendour continued until the late 1940s, with visits to Uruguay by Italian opera greats like tenors Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli and baritone Tito Gobbi.

Others who performed at the Solís in different periods were French actress Sarah Bernhardt, British-born U.S. actress Vivien Leigh, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, U.S. dancer Isadora Duncan, Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein and guitarrist Andrés Segovia of Spain.

During World War II, many orchestra directors fleeing Nazism settled in the Americas, which gave a boost to symphonic music in Uruguay, which was visited by Albert Wolf, Erich Kleiber and Fritz Busch of Germany, among others.

In the 1950s, after a long absence, Baldi once again became director of the OSSODRE, breathing new life into the orchestra, although times of crisis lay not far ahead as economic conditions began to steeply decline in this country known at the time as the “Switzerland of the Americas”.

The final blow came on Sept. 18, 1971, when a fire blazed through the Sodre auditorium.

Many believed that the theatre would be reopened within a relatively short time. But they were mistaken.

Classical music in Uruguay plunged into a dark period, aggravated by the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, which forced many intellectuals and artists to flee into exile. The country lost many of its artists, and opera practically disappeared for a number of years.

Timid steps began to be taken once democracy was restored. A downtown movie theatre was renovated and became the new Sodre auditorium – although it was much smaller than the original one – and foundations were created to rescue the classical music scene.

“Long lines of people queueing up for the opera began to be seen once again, and opera season opened, even though it only involved two different operas a year,” said Puig.

By then, the “new” Solís Theatre was severely rundown and at serious risk of collapse or fires.

“It was full of rugs, there was no orchestra pit and the orchestra was squeezed into where the first four rows of seats had been. It was a real mess. The magnificent sound of a great opera would never be possible there,” the director of the Montevideo Philharmonic Orchestra, Federico García Vigil, told IPS during a rehearsal of “La Bohème”.

Classical music concerts began to be held in places with even more unsuitable acoustics, like meeting rooms in hotels, public parks or the installations of the Technological Laboratory of Uruguay.

Nevertheless, it was in this period that the “three tenors” – Luciano Pavarotti from Italy and Plácido Domingo and José Carreras from Spain – visited Uruguay, separately. All three concerts were held on open-air stages.

In 1999, the Montevideo city government decided to close the Solís Theatre for renovation, a process that was completed last year. The reopening was an event of great importance for the entire country.

There seems to be a consensus that, with a strong cultural policy, classical music in Uruguay could recover part of its lost splendour thanks to the reopening of the Solís.

“Sometimes buildings or great works can generate that. We are not just anywhere; we are in a very important, prestigious theatre,” said García Vigil.

In August, the stage of the newly remodelled Solís was graced by outstanding international figures like Argentine-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made up of young Arab and Jewish musicians, and Indian conductor Zubin Mehta with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Israel.

The reopening of the theatre has also brought new hopes to a generation of young Uruguayan singers who, after finishing their training, were forced to leave their country as there was no longer an opera season.

A number of them have made a name for themselves abroad, and have performed in the world’s leading concert halls, like the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy.

Baritone Federico Sanguinetti, 38, belongs to that generation. He is in the cast of “La Bohème” and says he is happy to be able to stop and sing in his own country in the midst of his constant tours in neighbouring Argentina and Brazil.

“It’s like a fairy tale,” he told IPS. “To be able to sing in our own country doesn’t seem real to those of us who had to become emigrants. Now we can perform two or three operas here a year, in a country that has always had a strong love for classical music.”

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