A Violin-Shaped Hall

The grand opening of the newly restored Main Stage of the Bolshoi Theatre was postponed so many times that it moved from being a scheduled event to nothing short of a miracle.
Russia, on the whole, is a land of miracles, paid for by colossal efforts and enriched with assurances:  we shall spare no expense.  And, indeed, none was: six years of reconstruction cost the government and the sponsors twenty-odd billion rubles (they never did name the exact sum).  Whether the price was too much or too little still remains unclear.  Thus, Anatoly Iksanov, director general of the Bolshoi Theatre, is convinced that work of this level and scope would have incurred comparable costs in any country. And would have required a comparable amount of time.  

"When the Bolshoi Theatre Artists Are Forced to Leave" -- this small book by Boris Pokrovsky, detailing the fates of prominent musicians of the 20th century, was a striking impression of the country's prevailing policy toward artists.   Perhaps one day someone will write a detailed and no less dramatic history titled "How the Bolshoi Theatre Is Restored". That book would describe the struggle between bureaucratic and financial interests.  The lack of coordination between the Moscow and federal governments.  The overlooked cracks in the foundation of the old building stretching all the way to its roof (it was quite literally breaking at the seams) and the unexpected problems that the restorers were not even aware of.   Theatre walls hanging on jacks, soil that was transported out manually (it was already impossible to get the equipment anywhere near the building), the unexpected underground water inrush (the walls had already been put on a new foundation, otherwise the theatre building would have inevitably been lost).   And the unique restoration work that was practically triggered by the Bolshoi Theatre renovation.  

Perhaps our current president Dmitry Medvedev, who is often accused of inaction, will get the full credit for his part in the fate of the Bolshoi Theatre.   It was following his direct intervention, after all, that an interagency task group on the Bolshoi Theatre renovation and restoration was created, and its much stricter interdepartmental coordination finally got things truly moving in the right direction. 

To date, virtually all European opera theatres -- Bolshoi's contemporaries -- have undergone large-scale renovations. The renovation of our principal theatre, however, was truly unprecedented.  Here is but a partial list of the works performed.

The auditorium's original acoustics were restored.   To do that, they removed the cement plate that was poured in under the orchestra pit and the audience hall back in the Soviet times in order to reinforce the crumbling walls but one that ended up killing the acoustics.  They restored the panels made from resonant types of spruce, which turned the hall, conceived to be in the shape of a violin, into a musical instrument's soundboard.  Many elements of the auditorium décor were made from special papier-mâché that does not resonate and does not crack (everything was painted with gold leaf). Papier-mâché was boiled based on an archival recipe in old vats that were discovered in one of Altai factories.   All the seats were upholstered with a specially-treated fabric that does not absorb sound (each seat was tested separately). Placido Domingo was the first to try out the Bolshoi Theatre acoustics. 

Special rubber cushions were placed under the subway rails to dampen the vibrations.

The historic 1856 décor was recreated in the lobby. 

Nikolai II's Imperial Monogram was restored on the emperor's box and in the emperor's chamber. 

The Venetian mosaic in the circular hallways was restored with the help of a small sample discovered near the director's box (moreover, the mosaic tile was made at the same Villeroy & Boch factory in the German  Mettlach that was used 150 years ago). 

Yet another "victim of ideology" that was restored: the tapestries from the Maly Coronation Hall (under the Soviet government all tsarist paraphernalia was simply cut out). 

The mirrors that were brought here in carriages from France back in the 19th century have also been restored. 

The Bolshoi Theatre commissioned to have an organ custom-built in Germany.  The main curtain was woven in Italy.  The second curtain (the recreated "Minin and Pozharsky's Entry into Moscow" that brightened the 1856 coronation festivities) was made in the Penza region.  

Cafeterias, cloakroom and restrooms are located under the square in front of the Bolshoi Theatre.  The theatre now has a new convertible concert rehearsal hall that can accommodate the entire orchestra (it is now called the Beethoven Hall, whereas the formerly Beethoven Lobby was given its historic name of the Grand Imperial Lobby).  The hall can be used for rehearsals and concerts, for sound recordings and exhibitions. Panoramic elevators were installed for audience members to get to the second, third and fourth circles. 

A powerful "overture" of artistic events accompanies the opening of the Main Stage.  The most important of guest performances among those is a visit from La Scala (a "fellow sufferer", by the way -- the Milan theatre has also recently undergone renovations, though not on the same scale). Daniel Bahrenboim, who has replaced Riccardo Muti, chose Verdi's "Requiem" for their Moscow performance.  This is the legendary theatre's fourth visit to Moscow (during their first visit, in 1964, the Italians also performed "Requiem" with Herbert von Karajan at the conductor's stand). Then in December the Milanese troupe will present ballets "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Excelsior", and in September of next year they will bring a brand new premiere of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in Robert Carsen's production (La Scala is opening its current season at home with this production).

The opening of the Main Stage was accompanied by two domestic premieres as well: Glinka's opera "Ruslan and Lyudmila" (Vladimir Yurovsky, conductor) and Tchaikovsky's ballet "The Sleeping Beauty" (Vasily Sinaisky, conductor). Radical opera director Dmitry Chernyakov was invited to stage "Ruslan and Lyudmila" (audience shouts of "shame" and "bravo" became the principal affirmation of the theatre's argumentative but lively existence).  "The Sleeping Beauty" was staged by Yuri Grigorovich, patriarch of the Bolshoi Theatre, who presented a new choreographic version of Marius Petipa's principal masterpiece (along with a prominent Italian set designer Ezio Frigerio). This opening night "tandem" proves that both those who love the eternal classics and those who prefer the radical quests will find what they are looking for at the Bolshoi Theatre.


The first Bolshoi Theatre was built by architects Mikhailov and Bové in 1825 and burned down on March 11, 1853.  For nearly two years the country could not bring itself to spend an amount as large as the Bolshoi Theatre restoration would require. However, in February of 1855, after the death of Nikolai I, restoration of the theatre becomes a matter of national importance for the subsequent coronation.  And already by August of 1856 the new Bolshoi Theatre, designed by architect Alberto Cavos, was completed; and that building lasted through to the current renovation.   Today theatre visitors can see part of the old brickwork that displays three centuries worth of brick layers -- from 1825 to the present.

The Bolshoi Theatre in Numbers:

— The distance from the lower level to the roof ridge is 62 meters.  The new fireproof curtain weighs over 300 tons.  The auditorium capacity decreased from 2185 to 1740 seats, the capacity of the orchestra pit increased from 100 to 137 musicians;
— the area of the historic part of the building increased from 40 thousand square meters to 80 thousand;
— over 170 heads of state that visited the Bolshoi Theatre, coronations of Alexander II, Alexander III, Nikolai II, the declaration of the Soviet Union and the GOELRO (State Commission for Electrification of Russia) plan made the Bolshoi Theatre record breaker in the state functions department. 

Prepared by Olga Kaniskina based on material from the Russian press.


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