Bolshoi gala: a night in true Russian style, minus Putin

Right from an opening extravaganza of workers in hard hats toiling away to the tune of a drill, on through to a penultimate act featuring a horse and donkey, the entertainment was a gala evening managing to combine the Bolshoi‘s long history of grand performance with modern Russia‘s supposed cultural vacuity.

Stretched over two hours, Friday night’s over-the-top medley of ballet and opera, with enough theatrics to rival any Eurovision gathering, gave Russia a show to remember to celebrate the opening of the Moscow theatre’s doors.

Not that Dmitry Medvedev, dwarfed on the Bolshoi’s enormous stage, was going to let the assembled supermodels, politicians and ballerinas be in any doubt of the significance. “Today is a very happy day for our country,” the president said, kicking off the evening with a speech extolling the theatre’s symbolism. “We have, of course, a very big country, but one with a small number of unifying symbols, so-called ‘national brands’. The Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands.”

A brand name appeared a crass way to describe a magnificent world-class historic theatre that has given the world some of its best ballerinas, opera singers and choreographers. Broadcast round the world, the opening was intended as a cultural event to mark a six-year renovation costing half a billion pounds.

Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana, in silver lace top and deep blue skirt, took the main box, which has welcomed tsars and Soviet premiers since the theatre first opened in 1825. The president spent much of the evening whispering to Yelena Obraztsova, one of several Bolshoi legends invited to his box. When a standing ovation was needed, it was Medvedev’s wife who nudged him with the back of her hand.

Supermodel Natalia Vodianova and Italian actress Monica Bellucci were there, as were former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Naina Yeltsin, widow of the former president, and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In a nod to Kremlinology, ex-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, fired last month by Medvedev, was relegated to the last row. Former president Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, was notably absent.

As the curtains parted on the famous stage for the first time in six years, the grand hall, outfitted in lush red fabric, ubiquitous gold and opulent chandeliers, filled with a pounding squeal of drilling and repairs. New acoustics, a goal of the renovation, ensured it was deafening. After several minutes, a choir of many dozens dressed as building workers launched into Mikhail Glinka’s Ivan Susanin, singing “Glory to the Russian people!”

An all-Russian programme followed, with arias from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and a Shostakovich’s tango from the Golden Age ballet was only outdone by an elegant adagio from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, featuring principal ballerina Svetlana Zakharova. French soprano Natalia Dessay and Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana were invited to perform.

Nearly all the pieces showcased the Bolshoi’s famous traditional style. Walking down a long red carpet after the end towards the dogs and riot police cordoning off the square in front of the Bolshoi, attendees seemed pleased.

“I liked it,” said Vitaly Mutko, the sport minister. “It’s culture. It’s the country.”

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