"It's ready!" exclaimed Expo.02 director Nelly Wenger at Tuesday night's official opening of the country's national exhibition.
The seven-member Swiss cabinet together with 2,300 spectators looked on as Wenger let off fireworks to signal the start of the five-month-long event.
Dancers, singers, musicians and actors joined the Swiss governing elite at Neuchâtel's ice rink to celebrate the start of Expo.02 after eight years of preparations.
It may have been a packed house, but there were some notable absences in the audience.
The celebrated French architect, Jean Nouvel, declined an invitation to attend Tuesday's inaugural ceremony. He has denounced the end product of his architectural contribution to Expo.02 in the lakeside town of Murten as a "disaster".
Former Expo.02 directors, Pipilotti Rist and Jacqueline Fendt, also declined to attend the opening ceremony.
The one-hour spectacular saw mermaids moonlighting as chaperones for VIPs seated in the auditorium, while celebrated Swiss artists Laurent Sandoz, Erika Stucky, Simone Kaiser and Pascal Auberson and rock star Sina provided the on-stage entertainment.
Exhibition organisers also used the occasion to invite the Swiss people - and those who live beyond the country's borders - to visit Expo.02.
"Today we are beginning a great festival," said the president of the Expo.02 steering committee, Franz Steinegger, "to which we invite not just those who live in Switzerland, but also guests from abroad."
"For me the opening is a great joy. At last, we've arrived!" Wenger told swissinfo after the ceremony.
"Everyone's happy and everyone wants to join in the party," she added.
Eight years in the making and plagued by financial and management problems, Swiss President Kaspar Villiger said that Expo.02's troubled start had mirrored Switzerland's domestic problems.
"The nineties were indeed quite difficult," he told the audience. "There was economic stagnation, record unemployment, criticism directed towards Switzerland for its actions during the Second World War and difficult negotiations with the European Union.
"The Expo project couldn't get going," Villiger explained.
But the exhibition, he said, was a testament to Swiss perseverance. He urged the nation to put the problems behind them and join in the festivities.
Forget the past
"It took us a very long time to get here and we've had many difficulties, but all this is now forgotten," Swiss economics minister Pascal Couchepin told swissinfo after the inaugural ceremony.
"We are ready to enjoy the Swiss national exhibition and I should like to invite all people in neighbouring countries and from further afield to come and join us," he said, as he took another sip of celebratory champagne.
Around 450 singers, together with 200 instrumentalists from all over Europe, marked the occasion by giving the first-ever live performance of "A Song of Earth", a piece of music specially composed for the occasion by St Gallen musician, Mario Baretta.
The ceremony ended with a bang as fireworks were let off, sparklers were lit and confetti rained down on performers and spectators alike.
by Samantha Tonkin
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