It has been a renovation marred by endless delays and allegations of corruption, but on Friday the Bolshoi theatre finally opens its doors after a six-year overhaul to restore it to its pre-Soviet glory.
The grand theatre in Moscow, stripped of much of its opulence in Soviet times, now stands bathed in red Italian fabric and newly gilded mouldings, harking back to its tsarist-era splendour. But the most important changes are those unseen – namely, an overhaul of the theatre’s acoustics, which were severely damaged during ill-planned Soviet-era changes.
“This pushed the theatre below the 50th position in the world opera house rankings. Now we’ve returned to the theatre its original 19th-century acoustics,” said Mikhail Sidorov, a spokesperson for Summa, the company in charge of the renovation since 2009.
Russia‘s ruling duo, President Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin, will preside over a grand invitation-only gala at the theatre on Friday. Details of everything from guests to the performance have been kept secret. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is among the rumoured guests, while foreign opera stars from Placido Domingo to Natalie Dessay and Violeta Urmana are expected to perform.
“This will be a truly national celebration,” the Bolshoi’s general director, Anatoly Iksanov, said.
The opening performance will be aired in cinemas around the world, and live on Russian state-run television and YouTube. The theatre will set up screens outside its renovated facade for those Russians unable to snag a Kremlin invite to the exclusive event.
The Bolshoi’s history encapsulates Russia’s troubled past.
The theatre was founded by Catherine the Great in 1776, and its current home was built in 1825 after fire gutted a previous site. Two more fires would damage the building later in the 19th century. Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Modest Mussorgsky held premieres there, creating its reputation as one of the world’s leading cultural jewels.
Then came the Soviet era. With culture given the mission of promoting national glory, the Bolshoi’s ballet troupe flourished, producing stars like Galina Ulanova and Maria Plisetskaya. The building was hit by a bomb during the second world war, but quickly repaired.
More damaging were the changes implemented by the Bolshoi’s Soviet overlords, who also used the theatre to officially confirm the creation of the Soviet Union, host party congresses and announce important events like the death of Vladimir Lenin.
Like so many opulent tsarist-era buildings, the Bolshoi was stripped of its gold in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. The loss of the sound-reflecting decoration harmed the theatre’s acoustics, which were further degraded by a decision to fill the hollow underneath the orchestra with cement, as it was seen as “impractical”.
Decades of neglect followed and when the theatre was shut in July 2005 for its biggest renovation in 150 years, it was on the verge of collapse.
“By the time we closed the theatre for renovation, there was a 70% chance of the building collapsing,” said Iksanov. “We had reached a critical point.”
More than 3,600 engineers, designers, construction workers and artists were called in to work on the renovation. The theatre now boasts a modern stage and changeable floor – with a sound-absorbing coating for ballet performances, and a sound-reflecting one for opera. The Soviets, in a populist move, had expanded the number of seats from 1,720 to 2,200. The new theatre boasts the original design, with larger chairs outfitted in Italian fabric designed to enhance the acoustics.
“When I walked in, I stopped and couldn’t believe what was happening,” Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi’s ballet troupe, told Russian television this week. “I felt nothing but admiration.”
The theatre was initially due to reopen in 2008, but the date was pushed back several times amid spiralling costs and allegations of poor work.
The budget eventually soared to 21bn roubles (£435m) and in September 2009 prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into alleged misuse of funds.
No charges were brought and the Bolshoi denied any wrongdoing, but the main contractor on the project was replaced later that year.
Russians are already struggling to get tickets for the theatre’s public premiere, a performance of Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila to be held on 2 November. The top price for tickets is set at 3,000 roubles (£62) but there have been reports of online retailers offering them for as much as 2m roubles.