N. 2/2000


After opening the season at La Scala theatre of Milan with the "Fidelio" of Beethoven, it has been proposed the famous and ever-popular ballet the "Excelsior" with which it has been celebrated the passage to the year 2000, the evening of the New Year's Eve. A perfect choice, standing the features of the spectacle that on a side is still in stage in all the greatest theatres of the world. Let's get back, basing on ancient chronicles, to the first representation of the "Excelsior".
It was the evening of January 11th 1881. Leaving La Scala, people whispered the irresistible notes of a "galoppo" that had just learnt by heart. The first night of the "Excelsior" by Luigi Manzotti and Romualdo Marenco was a triumph. It was very cold, a piercing wind, snow was expected, but people were glad. Behind the flickering reverberation of the lamps, already unbelievable dawns, suns to come, fantastic phosphorescence started peeping as in a dream.

The "Excelsior" prophesied it by the means of the personage of Alessandro Volta. 

In the libretto of the ballet, Manzotti wrote: "Volta seizes two electrical wires, joins them and a spark illuminates the set! The pale brow of the scientist is radiant". 

Farewell to gas lamps so. Five or six years of wait and the electric lighting would make a clean sweep of all the romantic heritages of the past. People leaving La Scala sensed this certainty and the proud rose throughout fur muffs and lapels as a hot, pleasant wave: the proud to be bourgeois and Milanese, the proud to have contributed with one's own money (the proceeds were six thousands lire) to this spectacle that seemed a message coming from future.

The "Excelsior", anyhow, is on stage with this title in Latin that reminds to many persons the name of a hotel or a cinema, but that in 1881, wanted to mean the continuous rise of man, his suffered and winning flight toward the mechanic civilization. 

The destiny of a spectacle is often striking: the "Excelsior" of almost one hundred twenty years ago was a kind of unspeakable mixing in illusion; today, at the end of these illusions and of so many others, it seems to us a kind of funfair plenty of lamps.

Due to our disenchantment we are the worst judges of that past.

It would be necessary (but we are not able anymore...) to place us in the role of the post-romantic bourgeoisie that tasted the advantages of being the "class in power". First it would be necessary to find again the already dead suggestion of a world chasing the rituals and myths of Progress. It was indeed the period of the first big railways, of the first tunnel bored through mountains, of the channels between two seas, of the increasing roar of gears, pistons, and pulleys that excited the imagination of Jules Verne.

It's just the chance to remember that Manzotti, along with Alessandro Volta, introduced, among personages of the ballet, also the French physicist Denis Papin (1647-1714) that first attempted to employ vapour to activate a machine. Furthermore, the scenes of the "Excelsior" are devoted to the "electrical telegraph", to the digging out of Suez isthmus and to the dynamite allowing the Cenisio tunnel. All arranged as a bayonet fight between Light and Obscurantism, of the Genius of Civilization against the Genius of the Darkness, of the Progress against the Regression.

Capital letters are redundant but it would be a foolish gesture of profanation reducing them to small letters: save at least the far Olympus that appeared in the playbill of "Excelsior", where gathered the Genies of the Invention and the Goodwill, of the Fame and the Prodigy, of the Industry and the Value.

Over all them the Muses of the Optimism kept watch.

In the "Excelsior" all was big, all was "monstre", under a sky of neoclassic blue clouds. A newspaper wrote: "That of Manzotti is a real paradise, the triumph of the civilized human being". A weekly reasserted: "Is a progressive ballet, a philosophic ballet". If ghosts were admitted, surely it was present that of Auguste Comte, the father of the positivism: the "Excelsior" seemed just the opposite of any metaphysics, a loud positivist ritual.

After all, this was the shining seduction of "Excelsior". It offered the arcane feeling of Culture: the pirouettes performed by dancers that represented, according to Manzotti, Postillions, Peasants, Boatmen and Messengers of the telegraph office, were plenty of meanings.

There, the Homo Faber, here the Homo sapiens, joint to ensure the enraptured bourgeois of the stalls that Progress was chaste and philanthropic, an immense endless fair of the wonder. The plot of Manzotti and the music of Marenco turned their back on romanticism and cried their trust in a better world, "The glory of Present and the greater glory of the Future".

Will we now destroy this excessive homage the ballet "Excelsior" paid to the so-called Spirit of Time? Do we wont to put one upon another the horrible disappointments, the following endless confutation?

We think it is better to answer this way: happy those that enjoyed at least an evening of merry illusions and sensed in the "galop" of the "Excelsior" the rhythm and the fascination of a hope. Happy those people that inwards took leave of gas lamps, convinced that the spark of Alessandro Volta were alike the whisper of life itself.









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