Magnificence Meets Modernity: Bolshoi Rebirth Has Traditionalists Up in Arms

By Susanne Beyer and

The Bolshoi is the pinnacle of the Russian theater world. Following a six-year renovation, fans are thrilled to see the dazzling new building. But new onstage performances have dampened the enthusiasm.

Photo Gallery: The Reopening of the Bolshoi Theater Photos
AP

The Russian word awos is hard to translate into English. It means "perhaps" and "hopefully," but awos is also a broader term that conveys the notion that, in the chaos of existence, everything will eventually turn out for the best. These days, awos aptly describes the mood at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater.

The theater has one of the richest traditions of all Europe's stages. It is famous for opera and, most of all, for its ballet company. With its 200 dancers, the Bolshoi Ballet is the world's largest dance company. The theater was closed for six years. During that time, its dancers and singers performed in another building while the main building was being renovated at a cost of €570 million ($798 million).

The reopening ceremony for the theater will be held this Friday as part of a spectacle to be broadcast live in theaters worldwide, on television and online. But, at the moment, workers from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are still scraping bits of adhesive from the steps. It smells of paint, and in the stage-set storage area 20 meters (66 feet) underground, water still leaks through the ceiling whenever it rains. The principal dancers are practicing for the big gala event on a rehearsal stage.

In Russian, "Bolshoi Teatr" means "big theater." And, indeed, since its founding in 1776, the Bolshoi has always been big. The renovation was also a dramatic event involving a number of things, including saving a building, preserving a national symbol that graces 100-rubel notes and examining the monumental history of an enormous realm. In a narrower sense, the theater's renovation was about redefining this history.

From the Czars through Communism

The Bolshoi has always been a national stage, both for the czars and the leaders of the Soviet Union, who were actually just the country's new czars.

Catherine the Great had the first Bolshoi Theater built in 1776. There were several fires, most recently in 1853. And since a theater was needed for the coronation of Czar Alexander II in 1856, the Bolshoi had to be rebuilt quickly -- too quickly, in fact, for a building on marshy ground. The Russian-Italian architect Alberto Cavos was brilliant when it came to acoustics, designing the stage and the audience seating area in the shape of a giant violin in a way that made it a magnificent resonance chamber. But he paid more attention to the building's acoustics than to its stability.

Aristocrats used to gather at the Bolshoi. But after they had been murdered or chased away after the revolution of 1917, it became the site of Communist Party conventions. Now the theater was to be made accessible to as many people as possible. To create more space in the main-floor seating area, workers expanded the resonant floor. After a bomb struck the building during World War II, the foundation was reinforced with concrete, destroying the Bolshoi's unique acoustics.

Stalin, who loved Russian opera, entered the Bolshoi through a secret underground passageway. The singers and dancers could see him sitting in his box to the right of the stage. The Bolshoi was the official theater of the communist superpower, with the hammer and sickle proudly displayed on its red stage curtain.

A City Looking Back and Forward

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, bars and boutiques -- those glittering temples of capitalism -- sprang up in the area surrounding the Bolshoi. But the walls of the theater remained gray, and the hammer and sickle were still displayed on the curtain.

Still, this fit in with the new Moscow, which has become a place of deliberate confusion. Everything here is designed to look as opulent as possible, but even new buildings are often intentionally made to look old, complete with countless reminders of the past -- even of Russia's darkest days.

Indeed, Russians take a different view of their history than Germans do. Things that, at first glance, seem to have come to an end may in fact still exist, only in a different form.

For example, the hammer-and-sickle motif is embroidered into the uniforms of Aeroflot flight attendants, but its aircraft land at Moscow's state-of-the-art airport. The ruby-red star of communism is proudly displayed on the roof of the Kremlin and the mummy of revolutionary leader Lenin still lies in its mausoleum on Red Square. But a guard dressed in a czarist-era costume patrols the street outside a historic museum while a Stalin impersonator poses for tourists in a nearby underpass.

In Russia, new is old and old is new. The czar is gone, but long live the czar! Stalin is dead, but his claim to greatness lives on.

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