Arts: History Meets Busby Berkeley ; High Art, It Ain't. but Though Excelsior Is a Work of Jaw-Dropping Kitsch, This 1881 Spectacular Also Paved the Way for Modern Revues and Musicals, Says Nadine Meisner

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It was kitsch on such an opulent, colossal scale, it was hard to believe it was happening. High in the distance, in concentric whirls of cloud, floated the painted figure of Renown, blowing her trumpet. At the top of the stairs, harpists plucked their strings in that flamboyant way of pretend musicians. Close by, a line of men swayed in rhythmic counterpoint to the massed nymphs below. These danced simple steps in strict unison rows that slotted in and out, headed by allegorical figures such as Peace, Glory, Science and Commerce. The only static components in this elaborate clockwork were the crouched golden lions.

We might have been at Radio City Music Hall or in front of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. But instead, we were at the high-art temple of Paris's Opera Garnier, watching the ballet company of La Scala, Milan, which came to Covent Garden last year with Giselle. The production was Luigi Manzotti's Excelsior, created at La Scala in 1881, a hit spectacle which fused opera- house and musical-hall aesthetics, and prefigured showgirl revues. It also represents a commercial genre that framed didactic themes within big-scale spectacle, and Manzotti was its principal architect.

A "choreographic, historical, allegorical, fantastical action in two parts and 11 tableaux", Excelsior belongs to the time of Italy's unification, major scientific discoveries and industrial growth. It was an age of optimism in progress and modernity. (We now know better.) In Excelsior, the struggle between the characters of Obscurantism and Light accompanies tableaux in which backwardness is depicted yielding to enlightenment. The first steamboat puffs into view on the Weser River, but German oarsmen, egged on by Obscurantism, clobber its inventor Denis Papin to death.

His work, though, is not lost, as proved by the succeeding, magnificent Brooklyn and its bridges, locomotives crossing overhead, and steamships below. Alessandro Volta discovers electricity in his laboratory, which prompts a scene change to Telegraph Square, Washington, where rows of messenger girls look very fetching in bell- hop hats and other girls parade skirts shaped like Tiffany lamps. Then we switch to destitution in the Middle East, which in turn yields to thriving cosmopolitanism, thanks to Ferdinand de Lesseps's Suez Canal. Cue troops of smiling children wearing fezzes, tourists and traders of every nationality, plus, for no detectable reason, an Arabian dance solo.

The Cats of its day, Excelsior bursts with colour, props, costumes and decor, and must be a nightmare to transport. It arrived in Paris in 1883, for which the Eden Theatre, then the city's biggest, most technologically advanced venue, was built, close to the Palais Garnier. It sold out for nine months, and de Lesseps attended the opening with his seven daughters. It was presented in cities all over the world. In 1885, it premiered in London and Vienna; in 1887 in St Petersburg. Given Manzotti's habit of inserting new reference points for different audiences, he might today surely substitute the Chunnel for the episode about the Mont Cenis tunnel linking France and Italy, in which builders embrace as they break through. …