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Opera and drama

Opera and drama may have ignored the civil engineering profession, but dance has not.

True, not all choreographic representations have been strictly accurate. A work by Britain's Royal Ballet, purportedly set on a site in Docklands, featured rape, murder, resurrection and suicide - not perhaps a typical afternoon on site for the average engineer. And several Sovietera works which featured dams, water schemes or hydroelectric projects used the schemes only as a background to tales of passion, betrayal and Marxist-Leninist thinking.

But last month in Paris a tunnel breakthrough provided the climax to a ballet which played to sold-out houses at the city's magnificent Opera Garnier, a worthy setting for Luigi Manzotti's Excelsior. Naturally, one of GE'steam of cultural reporters was there.

First given in Milan in 1881, Excelsior celebrates the triumph of progress and technology. The climax of this two-act spectacle, which played all over Europe and North and South America at the turn of the century, is the breakthrough of the Mont Cenis tunnel in 1771.

Picture the scene. The curtain rises on a view of the tunnel face. A dozen or so brawny chaps are hewing away with picks. Others are hauling away spoil in (remarkably small) wheelbarrows.

The Engineer, identifiable by his well-cut Norfolk jacket, soft felt hat and natty half boots, is looking anxiously at his plans. Where are the French? He clasps his heart and falls to the ground. Consternation. The chaps abandon their tools, rush to his aid and join him in a short despairing dance.

All of a sudden there is a metallic clanging which, we may assume, represents French pickaxes. The brawny chaps attack the face with redoubled energy, only to fall back when there is a loud explosion and a large number of very realistic rocks cascade on to the stage.

Revealed in the opening are the French tunnellers who leap athletically over the boulders, and the scene concludes with flag waving and fraternal embraces, greeted by the audience with tumultuous applause.

Judith Cruickshank

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