RIO DE JANEIRO — The Summer Olympic Games kicked off Friday night in an opening ceremony with a gutted budget but a soaring feel, as a stadium nestled here below a hillside pulsed with lights, fireworks, circus-like acrobats and a samba singalong typical of this nation’s partying style.
Brazil, the first South American country to host the Olympics, used the start of the Games to tell a version of the country’s history — from slavery to mega-cities — that comes as hard economic times are testing its fun-loving style.
The first hour of the celebration featured a 12-year-old rapper, a supermodel, and beams of light used to dazzling effect — part of what Daniela Thomas, one of the event’s co-directors, called “MacGyver” ingenuity, in reference to the stripped-down budget.
The Brazilian singer Regina Casé, who warmed up the crowd at Maracanã stadium, told the thousands of cheering spectators what they wanted to hear: “Here in Brazil, we like to party.” She hinted at the nature themes to come, teaching the crowd how to make the sound of rain with their fingers and asking them to hoot like birds and monkeys.
A video on four jumbo screens showed a montage of Brazil’s sweeping vistas — rumbling waves, above-the-Amazon hang gliders, and aerial views of the famous Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro.
And then several hundred performers, shrouded in silvery costumes, brandished shimmering sheets, looking like a human rectangle of tin foil. Those sheets then inflated into pillows, and fireworks shot off around the stadium; a peace sign was projected onto the stadium floor. The nation’s national anthem played, and a new projection on the turf seemed to show a creation-of-Earth story — molecules, smoke, creatures crawling from the sea.
The early part of the ceremony touched heavily on darker parts of the nation’s history. Large wooden wheels, powered by performers wearing shackles, depicted the arrival of African slaves 400 years ago to Brazil. The “forest” on the floor of Maracana Stadium was replaced by geometric shapes, meant to represent sugar cane fields and plantations. But the moment soon turned soaring, and the stadium floor was again transformed — this time, with blocks rising, taking the form of skyscrapers, in an homage to Rio’s development.
Even mired in a political crisis and a deep recession, Rio was bringing its festive spirit to the pageant that kicks off the first Olympic Games held in South America.
Rio’s preparations for the Games were marked by a catalogue of bad news: sluggish venue construction,rising crime and coastal waters so polluted that Olympic swimmers were advised to avoid swallowing even a few spoonfuls.
But, for one night at least, Rio de Janeiro was basking in what it does best. This is a country expert in revelry, which every year fills its streets with dancing, stranger-kissing, inebriated glee at Carnival. The drumming and samba, the feathers and sequins, the models and athletes: Brazilians have been preparing for the opening ceremony for years.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world were expected to tune in to Maracanã stadium — the 74,000-seat venue hosting the ceremony, which was co-created by the filmmaker Fernando Meirelles and producer Daniela Thomas to honor Brazil’s sports, multi-ethnic history, world-famous music and raw natural beauty, from the Amazon rainforest to the white-sand beaches of Rio.
The program featured the choreographed show at the start, followed by the parade of athletes, beginning with the traditional entrance of the Greek team, and then proceeding in alphabetical order (in Portuguese) by country, including the appearance of the refugee Olympic team — a first — and ending with the arrival of the team from the host country, Brazil.
Many people had expected the Olympic flame to be lit by 75-year-old soccer legend Pelé, but he said that he would not participate in the ceremony because of his health.
Coming two years after the most expensive Olympics ever — the $50 billion Winter Games in Sochi, Russia — Rio’s welcome to the world was jubilant but restrained. This has become the austerity Olympics, with the country’s economic fortunes plunging since it won the bid for the Games in 2009. Brazil is now locked in one of its worse recessions in history, dragged down by slumping oil prices and allegations of staggering corruption.
For the opening ceremony, the budget available for Meirelles, who directed the Oscar-nominated film “City of God,” was one-tenth of what British director Danny Boyle had for the 2012 Summer Olympics ceremony in London. In an interview on the 2016 Rio Olympics website, Meirelles talked about how his ambitions were forced to shrink along with the vanishing budget. What began as more than $100 million was cut in half, a show of 3,000 people sliced to 700.
“At first I was very upset. You start thinking something very big and then you have to cut, cut, cut,” he added. “On the other hand, it is good in some way because we are in a moment in the world where we need to be reasonable with the way we spend money.”
That scaled down ambitions fit well with the frustrated mood across many parts of Rio.
The run-up to the games has been punctuated by demonstrations, an anti-Olympic backlash driven by people who felt the time was not right for lavish spending. Protesters blocked the torch’s progress as it made its way around the country and attempted to douse it with fire extinguishers and buckets of water; in a few cases they were met by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Just hours before the opening ceremony, security forces fired tear gas and a percussion grenade after youths set fire to a Brazilian flag and a Rio 2016 volunteer’s T-shirt and tried to get close to the Maracanã stadium. One man was arrested.
The trouble came after a march targeting what demonstrators called “the Exclusion Games” had come to a peaceful end in at the leafy Afonso Pena square near the stadium. Beatriz Nunes, 34, a teacher at the march, said that when some protesters tried to cross a police line, officers responded with tear gas and the percussion grenade.
Earlier in the day, a few thousand protestors marched along the Copacabana seafront in a sea of red shirts. They took aim at two targets – Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer, who took over in May when President Dilma Rousseff was suspended and ordered to face a controversial impeachment trial, and the Olympic Games themselves.
“We don’t have the conditions to receive the Games,” said Leonardo Ladeira, a 22-year-old protestor. “At this moment it is a chaotic activity.”
Yet it’s not all recriminations and rancor in Rio and beyond.
Many Brazilians have embraced their opportunity to host the Games, and are excited for them to begin. Residents have lined the streets and cheered the passing torch as it has made its way into Rio.
“I think they are a wonderful thing for Rio in terms of the spirit,” said Aline Campos, 45, who works in a financing company in the city’s center. “It is a very beautiful coming-together of people, and people are happy they are here.”
(Harlan reported from Washington)