Russia’s historic Bolshoi Theater will finally raise its curtain on Friday after a massive, six-year overhaul that aims to create a state-of-the-art space for its world-renowned ballet and opera troupe.
Stars including prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova and French soprano Natalie Dessay will tread the new stage at a lavish gala attended by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as well as major arts figures.
The invitation-only gala in Moscow will be broadcast on a giant screen to crowds outside the theater as well as airing on Russian television and in cinemas worldwide, the theater’s director Anatoly Iksanov said.
Other big names scheduled to appear include opera stars Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Angela Gheorghiu as well as the Bolshoi’s wildly popular young dancers Natalya Osipova and Ivan Vasilyev, a real-life couple famed for their gravity-defying leaps.
The pink-painted columned building in central Moscow closed in 2005 for repairs that ran seriously behind schedule and cost at least $800 million, as the state of the 1820s building was found to be far worse than first believed.
"Seventy percent of the building was crumbling and the risk was that it would simply collapse," said Mikhail Sidorov, a representative of the Russian building company Summa Capital, which took over the project in 2009.
"Usually in such cases people don’t do repairs but demolish," he said.
Ever since, the Bolshoi ballet troupe, feted for recent ventures into modern dance, and the opera have performed on the theater’s second stage in another building opposite the old one.
Now despite skeptical murmurs, the historic building is on the point of reopening after a grandiose reconstruction that not only spruced up the facade and the gilded interior, but also updated cramped backstage areas.
Improvements include a larger orchestra pit and better greenrooms for the dancers, who will no longer have to share toilets in the first major renovations since 1856, when it was restored after a devastating fire.
Theater director Iksanov called the reopening of the theater, which features on banknotes, a "state holiday" and it will undoubtedly be a boost for national pride.
In symbolic changes, restorers removed the Soviet coat of arms from the facade, replacing it with the double-headed eagle, the Tsarist symbol readopted by Russia. The Soviet hammer and sickle is also gone from the curtain.
"Today we enter an imperial theater, and no longer that of the Soviet era," said Sidorov. "We took everything that we could from the 19th century."
Painstakingly, restorers spent three years replacing red silk wallpaper in the so-called Imperial Foyer, opened in the late 19th century to celebrate the coronation of the last tsar, Nicholas II.
The glittering gilding is also a labor of love, with seven layers of gold leaf laid on top of an egg-white base, which was then washed with vodka and polished with squirrel tails, Sidorov said.
The showpiece theater was originally due to reopen in 2008, but in an embarrassing scandal the opening date was postponed several times amid spiraling costs and the main contractor was replaced in 2009.
After a period in the doldrums, the Bolshoi has found a new artistic lease of life ahead with innovative new stagings of great operas and productions of seminal works of modern dance on the second stage.
Most notably, US ballet star David Hallberg has joined the Bolshoi for the new season, the first time an American has become a member of the legendary company whose stars until now were all Russian or from ex-Soviet states.