For years, ongoing renovations have left Moscow's historic Bolshoi theatre dark and untouched. After a six-year restoration program costing an estimated half a billion pounds, the lights turned back on in the theatre last month and ballet dancers are once again performing on its main stage. Although it's highly unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have approved of the large sums spent to return the theatre to its once glorious aesthetic, this is modern Russia, and the investment of such sums emphasizes the importance of the historical landmark to the heritage and culture of the Russian people.
The central bed of the Bolshoi Theatre.
The new "Bolshoi", which means "grand" in Russian, has been restored to its 19th-century glory but with present-day additions. Tapestries have been rewoven, balconies have been covered with gold leaf, frescoes have been repainted, crystal pendants from the main two-tonne chandelier have been restored and replaced and over 150 goldsmiths worked with around 11 pounds of gold leaf to revive the interior. Huge sums have also been spent on structural work and intricate detailing. Improvements include a 130-person orchestra pit (now one of the largest in the world), renovated dressing rooms, new acoustics and a dynamic stage which can be made horizontal or inclined to accommodate a variety of productions. There are also spaces beneath the theatre, including an underground concert hall for rehearsals and chamber concerts and a rehearsal stage that mirrors the main stage below, allowing dancers to get a feel for the exact size of the space. However, other symbolic elements from the theatre's previous days were not restored. The curtain has lost its hammer and sickle from the Soviet era and the old insignia on the building's façade has been replaced with the Russian eagle. Both serve as statements that the Bolshoi is a new theatre, not just one that reflects the past but one which reflects the modern era.
The history of the Bolshoi theatre is one of drama. The Bolshoi Company was established in Moscow in 1776 for masquerades during the reign of Catherine the Great. After a previous home burned down, the current theatre opened in 1825 on the same site and was known as the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow. The opulent theatre witnessed additional desecration, including a fire that destroyed the building in 1853, a World War II bombing and years of neglect during the Soviet era.
Untouched now for decades, the historical landmark was descending into ruins until six years ago when it was closed for renovations, a process itself which was rife with drama and scandal. Criminal investigations over charges of embezzlement, canceled openings, resignations, the estimated $760 million cost in repairs and involvement of President Dmitry Medvedev, have made the Bolshoi's reconstruction a veritable feat.
President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were present at the grand, invitation-only gala on October 28. "This will be a truly national celebration," said the Bolshoi's general director, Anatoly Iksanov in a recent interview with the Guardian. Opera stars including Placido Domingo, Natalie Dessay and Dmitri Hvorostovsky performed next to principal ballet dancers Ivan Vasiliev and Svetlana Zakharova in addition to members of the Bolshoi Ballet Company. When guests arrived to the theatre, they immediately witnessed a stunning laser show projected onto the Bolshoi's grand façade after which President Medvedev appeared on stage to give an introductory speech. For the first performance, the choir wore hard hats in homage to the hundreds of construction workers who took part in the theatre's reconstruction. Subsequent acts included extracts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Ivan Susanin's A Life for the Tsar.
Russians are already eagerly trying to acquire tickets for signature staples of the Bolshoi repertoire such as Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, both of which are being performed this winter season. The Bolshoi theatre glitters once again.
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