Russia's Bolshoi Theater back from the brink of destruction
The iconic Bolshoi Theater, home to the famed ballet and opera troupes, reopens its doors today after a nearly $1 billion renovation to restore the once-crumbling theater to its 19th-century glory.
The familiar neoclassical structure near Red Square, which has bespoken Russian artistic preeminence for almost two centuries, has been completely rebuilt and lovingly restored to its 19th-century Imperial splendor, and opens its newly refurbished doors to the public today for a gala performance of the classic Russian opera "Ruslan and Lyudmilla."
For the Kremlin, which has spent almost $1 billion to reconstruct the old theater, it's a satisfying moment, and one whose metaphorical implications are hard to miss. Like the nation it symbolizes, the Bolshoi was near collapse barely a decade ago, its foundations crumbling, its ornate auditorium rent with huge cracks, and its walls held together by little more than plaster and string.
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"The state of the building was catastrophic," says Mikhail Sidorov, a spokesman for the Summa Group, the construction company brought in by the Kremlin two years ago to finish the job after press reports of botched work by other contractors, four years of delays, cost overruns that amounted to 16 times original estimates, and an ongoing corruption investigation initiated by a Moscow prosecutor's office.
"When we took it over in 2009, it seemed utterly inconceivable that the theater would open by this year," he says. "But here we are. This inauguration will be a huge cultural event, not only for Russia but for the whole world."
A return to 19th-century glory
The Bolshoi's historic interior has been completely restored to its 1896 state, the time of its last renovation. Gone are the Soviet-era motifs, including the hammer and sickle that has dominated the building's facade for almost a century, now replaced by a czarist double-headed eagle.
Inside, the marbled-and-mirrored lobbies, the sweeping staircases, and the enormous 25-foot-high chandelier have all been returned to their Imperial glory. Thousands of specialists worked on the details of restoring tapestries, stage curtains, woodwork, and the elaborate gilding for which the theater was famous. A huge acoustic drum under the stage of the violin-shaped auditorium – which the Soviets filled with concrete in an apparent effort to stabilize the structure – has been carefully reconstructed. Experts say the Bolshoi, which reputedly had the finest acoustics of any theater in 19th-century Europe, will shine again.
The stage has been redesigned to go easy on ballet dancers' feet, and its many sections and trapdoors will be operated by up-to-date hydraulic technology.
Underground there are warrens of dressing rooms, rehearsal theaters, and workshops that never existed before. Most important, the rotting oak foundation piles – the source of most of the building's structural woes over the past two centuries – have been replaced by solid steel piles driven into the bedrock.