People's gala at the Bolshoi

The lengthy and vastly expensive restoration of Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Theatre comes to fruition on 28 October, when there will be an invitation-only gala performance in the presence of President Medvedev. Costs have soared, end dates have been extended and accusations of inefficiency (and corruption) have been rife. The theatre may be opening its doors again, but can it ever be a theatre for all, as it was in Soviet times? Clementine Cecil looks at some of the facts.

On Friday 28 October, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow finally opens after 6 years of restoration and reconstruction work and a bill of some £400 million. The opening is a celebration of theatre in a country that has always revered the art form, and returns a building of great elegance to Teatralnaya Square.

Titanic achievement 

Bolshoi LogoThe new Bolshoi is a titanic achievement of engineering and restoration, all the more impressive for the theatre’s location at the centre of a busy metropolis. The work has been done with imagination, restoring the theatre as far as possible the 1853-56 building, when it was reconstructed by Russian-Italian architect Alberto Cavos after a fire, but leaving some later elements. This meant reversing many changes made to its fabric in Soviet times and the reconstruction of elements lost during a 1941 bombing attack. Not everyone is happy with it: preservationist campaigners criticised the destruction of the northern portico, all that remained from the original 1825 theatre by Osip [Joseph] Bove, and it has been called more a ‘recreation’ than a restoration.

The volume of the theatre is now almost double what is visible to the naked eye and it stretches far under Teatralnaya Square. As well as the second stage, the Beethoven Hall, there are new dressing rooms, an extended bar on the fourth floor, underground parking, a much larger main stage, and, crucially, new foundations. The next door Khomyakov House, has also been restored, and two storage warehouses in east Moscow constructed. A large part of the budget went on the highest of high-tech new equipment for the theatre which now, among other things, has a changeable stage in the main theatre: one for opera and one for ballet, which is softer on the dancers’ feet.

'The new Bolshoi is a titanic achievement of engineering and restoration, all the more impressive for the theatre’s location at the centre of a busy metropolis.'

Theatregoing is revered almost religiously in Russia and, of all the theatres, the Bolshoi is mecca, somewhere that must be visited at least once in a lifetime by all Russians. In Soviet times, theatre was made cheap enough to allow everyone access, but in the new Russia, it has become more of a luxury.

The first performance will be Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila on 2 November. Tickets are going for astronomical prices of up to 12,000 roubles (£240), more than half the monthly wage for the average Russian, and the internet is full of rumours that they are in fact being exchanged for much higher sums, suggesting that this may be culture for the élite, and not the masses, as the Bolshoi once was. This site, possibly a forgery, details tickets of up to 2m roubles. 

The restoration of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre lasted 6 long years. The opening gala concert on Friday 28 October  will feature Russian classical music. President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to attend. Photo: Mikhail Kolobaiev

In a country where television and film are censored, the theatre is one of the few free spaces where discourse can happen. The Bolshoi has a slightly different role however: to be seen here is a status symbol for the wealthy (many of whom keep ballerinas as mistresses); Russians come in from the provinces and watch the audience as much as the stage.

The restoration has also been riven with stories of corruption and bad budgeting, raising many questions about how state projects are conducted in Russia today. In 2009, prosecutors opened an investigation into the lead contractor, alleging the company had been paid three times for the same work in a £10m corruption case. Following this, President Medvedev ordered the creation of an inter-ministerial body to oversee the completion of the work. Since then, things have run more smoothly, but the overall lack of transparent project accounting has remained unchallenged, and costs have run 16 times over budget. There has also been scandal in the form of smear campaigns: earlier this year the deputy director, Gennady Yanin, resigned, following the posting online of graphic pictures of him in bed with a man.

The Bolshoi is significant not only as a seat of culture, but also of history. In Soviet times it was the leading political venue of the country: Communist Party congresses were held here until the 1960s and it was here that the formation of the USSR and the Soviet Constitution was announced, as well as the death of Lenin in 1924.

'Theatregoing is revered almost religiously in Russia and, of all the theatres, the Bolshoi is mecca, somewhere that must be visited at least once in a lifetime by all Russians.'

Restoration work was to have commenced in the late 1930s, but was interrupted by war. As with most of the country’s buildings, maintenance was minimal. This was an indicator of the poverty of the Soviet state, though there were individual cases of high-level restoration, particularly the war-damaged palaces around Leningrad. Detailed examination of the painted ceiling in the main theatre revealed the great resourcefulness of Soviet restorers working on slender means and with little time: parts of the canvas were kept attached to the roof with cigarette papers.

New foundations

Engineers examined the foundations in 2005. They were found to be on the edge of collapse, causing cracks of up to 30cm in the walls, so the theatre was placed on steel struts, the rotting foundations were removed, and the building re-pinned.

Chandellier_bolshoi

The Bolshoi's crystal chandeliers have been restored in
accordance with old drawings. The chandelier in the main
auditorium was lowered to the floor and strengthened. 
Photo: Mikhail Kolobaiev

New construction work includes a glass insert between the building and the northern portico, a replica of the original 1825 portico, which had gradually disappeared from view, as the theatre grew over the centuries. A bridge on the fourth storey links the theatre to rehearsal rooms in the next building. These, and the new underground Beethoven Hall, are the work of Pavel Andreyev from city architectural studio Mosproyekt 2. Andreyev was responsible for the new roof and inserts in the Manezh building (1817) and in the Bolshoi he has used the same combination of banal high-tech with banal classical motifs and finishes. So, although the theatre has been restored to a high standard, there is an encroachment of the prevailing Muscovite inclination for the faux-historic.

Elements of all periods have been preserved, including some chandeliers dating back to Stalinist times. Serious effort was put into revealing and restoring historic finishes wherever possible. A nineteenth century Venetian floor mosaic had disintegrated to such a degree that it had been covered over with parquet in Soviet times. A small section of it was found under concrete and used as a model to restore the entire area. Sculptures in niches on the exterior of the theatre, destroyed when a bomb hit it in 1941, have been remade. A new stage curtain has been made, apparently as sumptuous as the 1955 version, famous for its Soviet symbols. The new one is also in red velvet and gold thread, but it is decorated with double-headed eagles and the word Rossiya. Armies of restorers worked on the building:  956 at peak times, while 2,000 restorers were working on architectural and interior elements in their workshops.

Critical voices

Dress_room

In the past the Bolshoi Theatre singers and dancers always
complained about the shortage of backstage space. 50 new
dressing rooms offer them unprecedented comfort, of which
artists in the past could only dream. Photo: Mikhail Kolobaiev

However, the work has its critics, including ballet dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, well known for his roles in all the classics from Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty to Raimonda and Giselle. He is one of few dissenting voices unhappy with both the quality of restoration and the new construction. Tsiskaridze criticises [in Russian] the new rehearsal rooms for their low ceilings, ‘if you lift up a dancer she would hit her head,’ he says, and he considers the restoration work poor.

Architect and representative of Arkhnadzor pressure group (Architectural Watchdog) Roman Tsekhansky said that there were two main problems with the new theatre, ‘firstly they have allowed reconstruction and new construction within an architectural monument, which pollutes the entire building, like a tarnished spoon in a pot of honey. Secondly, there is very little restoration here, most of it is actually a recreation of lost elements. This is restoration a la Luzhkov [former Mayor of Moscow] which is more about making the monument look new.’

What has been undoubtedly a success is the restoration of the acoustics. These were seriously damaged in Soviet times when concrete was poured into the hollow beneath the orchestra pit, papier-maché detailing was replaced with plaster and the number of seats increased.

'Elements of all periods have been preserved, including some chandeliers dating back to Stalinist times. Serious effort was put into revealing and restoring historic finishes wherever possible.'

All of these changes have been reversed and in October a delegation from UNESCO gave their approval, returning the Bolshoi to its status of a theatre with some of the best acoustics in the world.

It has yet to be seen what role the Bolshoi will occupy in Russian life from now on. The emphasis on high-tech and bling restoration, together with the opaque management of the project, suggest that it may become a playground for the rich and powerful, who will all want to be seen against a background of brightly shining newly gilded plasterwork. Photos: Mikhail Kolobaiev

More Mikhail Kolobaiev’s photos of Boshoi Theatre can be found in his Live Journal blog

About the author

Clementine Cecil is a journalist and co-founder of MAPS, the Moscow Architectural Preservation Society 

Read On

Bolshoi Theatre  web site

Bolshoi ballet: Power and poise, by Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, July 19, 2010