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
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
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
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.