Bolshoi Theatre to reopen after major refit

By Daniel Sandford
BBC News, Moscow

Media caption, One of the world's greatest theatres, the Bolshoi in Moscow, reopens after a six-year renovation programme

Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre is being reopened on Friday evening after a renovation that took six years to complete, and at a cost officially estimated at half a billion pounds.

On a new rehearsal stage high up in the Bolshoi Theatre, sweat is pouring off some of the world's greatest dancers as they prepare for one of the ballet company's most important seasons.

For six years the main stage of the historic theatre has been dark, but now its glittering chandeliers are shining again.

The theatre closed in 2005 for restoration work, but the job proved much bigger than anyone expected.

Huge sums have been spent on structural work and intricate detailing.

The frescoes and vast quantities of gold leaf have all been replaced. The material was washed with vodka and polished with squirrel tails.

President Medvedev and company of Bolshoi at theatre
Image caption, President Medvedev recently visited the theatre and its company

Symbolically, the curtain has lost its hammer and sickle from the Soviet era, while the old insignia on the building's facade has been replaced with the Russian eagle.

Other improvements include a bigger orchestra pit and improved dressing rooms. The rehearsal stage mirrors the main stage directly below, so the dancers know the exact size of the space.

Back in possession of the main stage at last, principal dancer Maria Aleksandrova is moved to tears.

"We all know that we have to keep the history and traditions of this place," she said. "So this is a very happy moment for us. I've even got tears in my eyes, I am so happy."

Critical audience

There has been a theatre on the site since the 1700s, while the current building dates back to the 1856.

"When the curtain opens you see all the magnificence of this hall," Ms Aleksandrova said.

"When we are doing classical performances they are about another time. The theatre helps us to imagine that era - the greatness, and the royalty - what Tsarinas and princesses were like.

"Because we live in a much more simple time, it is difficult to imagine it without the theatre," she adds.

An earlier building was burnt down during Napoleon's occupation of Moscow in 1812, but there is history everywhere.

There is a picture of Tsar Alexander II at the theatre after his coronation. Much later, Stalin addressed the Bolshevik faithful at the Bolshi and Britain's Field Marshal Montgomery even attended a performance there in 1947.

It seems unlikely that the Bolsheviks would have approved of the hundreds of millions of pounds spent returning the theatre to its Tsarist glory.

But this is modern Russia, so the greater concern is how much of the money was obtained in a country where corruption is king.

These days it is the theatre's very knowledgeable clientele that makes it special.

The new artistic director is Sergey Filin, one of their best male dancers of recent years, and he says they still fear the Bolshoi audience.

"The Bolshoi stage is our home. We love the other theatres that we have danced in all over the world. But the most critical audience is here at the Bolshoi. So this is the place the dancers, singers and musicians find the most challenging.

"Some of our dancers have never performed on this stage, and they don't know what it is like. So there is a very special feeling of anticipation," he says.

The first performance is an invitation-only gala concert which will be attended by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But the evening's entertainment will be shown on a giant screen outside the theatre and broadcast on Russian TV.

The opera company's season opens on 2 November, with their ballet counterparts taking to the stage on 18 November.

Tickets for the first three months have sold out.

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