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.

Mikhail Metzel/AP
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (r.) stands in a czar’s box during his visit to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. The theater, which closed in 2005, underwent a $1 billion renovation and will reopen at the end of October.

Russia's iconic Bolshoi Theater will officially return from the brink of destruction this week.

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.

"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.

A group of veterans of the Bolshoi's ballet and opera troupes recently visited the theater, and many had tears in their eyes.

"We spent our lives in this building, and we felt like we couldn't live without it," says Boris Akimov, a famous ballet trainer who insists the new stage is a ballet dancer's dream. "These seven years of renovations have seemed like an eternity. It's wonderful to be back, and it's perfect. The hall has been completely restored, but backstage everything's different."

A storied history

The Bolshoi artistic troupe was founded in 1776, but the current theater was built to replace one burned down by Napoleon Bonaparte's Army, which occupied Moscow in 1812. Major renovations were made after another fire struck the building in 1855, but – as often happens in Russia – politics intervened with negative consequences. In order to speed up the theater's opening to please the freshly crowned Czar Alexander II, constructors took shortcuts and failed to fix the theater's already sagging foundations.

After briefly considering the notion of razing the Bolshoi as an anachronism from the hated czarist order, the Bolsheviks embraced the theater and the artistic traditions it embodied and hailed them as symbols of Soviet greatness. Dictator Joseph Stalin frequented the Bolshoi's opera performances, and the Communist Party sometimes held meetings in its lavish concert hall.

But aside from cosmetic changes, the Soviets did little to arrest the spider webs of cracks that spread throughout the structure as its foundations shifted disastrously.

"I watched the beginning of the renovation process with dread; the building was so decayed that it could have collapsed completely," says Anatoly Ikshanov, the Bolshoi's general director. "The artists didn't see that at all, but I did. It was a very close call. But it was worth it, because now our theater is more alive than ever."

The first four years of the Bolshoi's renewal were dogged with accusations of corruption, waste, and incompetence. In 2009, the State Duma's auditing chamber accused builders of cost overruns that were 16 times more than the budget, in addition to being three years behind schedule. So the Kremlin fired almost everyone associated with the project and brought in the Summa Group, with freshly topped off budgets and strict orders to bring the Bolshoi back from the edge of ruin.

"It had become a matter of prestige for the state, before the eyes of the whole world, to do this properly," says Sergei Hodnev, a theater critic with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "So all the administrative buttons were pressed, and results followed. And it's a great job. The genius of the place has been completely preserved."

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