Nineteenth-century Italians liked big ballets that featured huge sets, flashy costumes and enormous casts; these were the massive productions called the “Ballo Grande.” Two of the biggest of these extravaganzas were Excelsior, (1886) a paean to progress and modern technology, and Sport (1897) which celebrated the human desire for bodily perfection and athletic prowess. Both of these works were written by composer Romualdo Marenco (1841-1907) and choreographed by Luigi Manzotti (1835-1905). They were written for Milan’s La Scala Theater, and incredibly, Excelsior (despite its many sets, costumes and cast of hundreds) has continued to be performed. Sport, unfortunately, has been relegated to virtual oblivion.
It is not difficult to understand why these works are so rarely mounted. The original cast of Sport included a pit orchestra of 100 players (augmented with 30 brass bandsmen) In addition to the principal dancers the producers had recruited a small army of real athletes to participate in the performance. There were 80 non-dancing extras, 40 ice skaters, 16 cyclists, 60 equestriennes (along with at least 3 live horses) and 23 gymnasts. It is a wonder that the stage of La Scala did not collapse from the sheer number of performers.
Robert Ignatius Letellier has done historians and musicologists a great favor by assembling the piano reduction scores of both of these works into one volume. For me however, it is the ballet Sport that is the most precious inclusion in the book because this elusive work has virtually disappeared from both the stage and history. Dr. Letellier has done a superb job of introducing and editing the scores; both works are clear and perfectly easy to read. In addition, the superscript (especially in Sport) allows modern readers to have a running commentary on the narrative elements of the ballet.
Modern viewers are often undecided about where Excelsior and its more reclusive sister, Sport register on the “Taste Meter”; should they be denounced as complete kitsch or celebrated as great art? Most would probably consider them to be charming oddities and just enjoy them for the wonderful music, elaborate production numbers and their over-the-top exuberance. One would hope that the modern publication of these two scores will encourage musicians, historians and balletophiles to reexamine the extravagant and colorful world of 19th century Italian narrative ballet. There is much in these works that merits study, critical evaluation and appreciation. Excelsior has been revived, so perhaps one day Sport will enjoy a similar fate.
David Chapman, Sport historian
For more information on Romualdo Marenco: Excelsior and Sport and to purchase a copy, click here.