Photo Gallery: The Reopening of the Bolshoi Theater

Foto: Alexander Zemlianichenko/ AP

Magnificence Meets Modernity Bolshoi Rebirth Has Traditionalists Up in Arms

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.

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.

Too New for a Storied Building

It was in this spirit that the Bolshoi was renovated, and no expense was spared in making it as opulent as possible. Apparently no one in Russia was interested in a reconstruction that paid attention to the building's history and exposed its wounds.

Before reconstruction, the Bolshoi was heavily damaged, but its exterior and interior furnishing had been preserved with only minor exception. But now it looks like a brand-new building -- and one almost too beautiful to be real. Only one segment of wall in a stairwell has yet to be finished and temporarily stands behind glass. Otherwise, everything is disturbingly clean and perfect.

The golden crest of the last dynasty of czars, the Romanovs, was uncovered again, and it seems as if it had always been there in its current condition. Decades ago, the symbol of the czars was cut out of the red wall coverings in the rooms adjoining the main theater and replaced with floral ornaments. Now the floral motifs have been cut out and replaced with the symbol of the czars. The hammer-and-sickle symbol has disappeared from the red-and-gold stage curtain. In fact, now there is a new curtain -- adorned with the double-eagle crest of today's Russian Federation.

Indeed, although the symbols are interchangeable, the charismatic self-image of this theater has remained the same. Perhaps the rooms just need a little patina, or a couple of rough winters, to regain an aura that conveys what once happened here and the famous people who have sat in its boxes, including Princess Diana, Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and, in the coldest days of the Cold War, even former US President Richard Nixon.

Still, General Director Anatoly Iksanov says the acoustics are as beautiful as they once were.

16 Times More Expensive than Planned

Meanwhile, those responsible for the renovation are pleased that it was completed at all. Indeed, it was done right in the nick of time. Fifteen cracks as thick as a human arm traversed the building's supporting walls because the foundation, which consisted of hundreds of wooden supports, had become decayed by the underground waters of the Neglinnaya River.

Now, engineers have connected the outside walls with the rocky subsoil and stabilized the building. Likewise, with the many additional spaces that were created below and above ground, the building's floor space has doubled from 40,000 square meters (430,000 square feet) to 80,000 square meters.

As is always the case with construction projects, everything was more expensive than planned -- in fact, 16 times as expensive. But the ballooning of project costs has something to do with fact that "the funds provided were not used in a targeted manner," as the Russian audit court complained. It was a polite way to avoid using the word "embezzlement."

Instead of the theater's management, a department from the Ministry of Culture was first put in charge of the renovation. Most recently, when costs were spinning out of control, the office of the Russian president assumed control. Indeed, even today, the Bolshoi Theater is a state affair.

The new Bolshoi will have three stages: the reopened old stage, the newly created chamber theater in the basement, and the theater in the adjacent building that has been used as a temporary replacement for the old theater since 2005.

But the Bolshoi's reputation will not depend on the number of stages it has or the gold-leaf embellishments in its interior. Instead, it will depend on the stories told there, how they are told and the artistic heights they attain.

Nostalgia for the Past

Of course, the Bolshoi will always be a tourist attraction. But some wonder whether it will also be a world-class theater. This is the challenge it currently faces -- and one that is quite possibly greater than the entire renovation.

Gennady Yanin, 43, recounts some of the difficulties encountered along the way. He was the head of the ballet ensemble until May, when he was let go. His story is typical.

We meet near the Bolshoi, at the Vogue Café, a popular haunt for the nouveau riche. The owner cooks for Vladimir Putin, the once and future Russian president. In fact, he made so much money with his three dozen high-end restaurants that he could afford to buy the Lake Como villa of fashion designer Gianni Versace for more than €35 million.

Yanin, the former ballet director, arrives late. The streets are blocked off again because current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is being driven through the city. "Do you know how I felt when I was responsible for all the dancers?" he asks. He lifts his arms as if he were holding reins. "Like a coachman who is trying to control several horses," he answers, "all of whom are galloping in different directions."

Being a dancer and training dancers is completely different these days than it was during the time of the Soviet Union, Yanin says. Back then, he explains, all the hard work was worth it because dancing at the Bolshoi allowed people to experience the world -- and they made so much money in guest appearances, he adds, that they could afford fashionable Western clothing. But today, he says, there are easier ways to attain financial success and fame.

A Victim of Intrigue

Although he still dances at the Bolshoi, Yanin is no longer in charge of the ballet. In fact, he claims he fell victim to an intrigue. Of course, all stage performers know how powerful betrayal can be. But with all the changes that have occurred at the Bolshoi, in Moscow and in Russia, even the nature of intrigue has changed.

Yanin still remembers dancing his first solo at the Bolshoi as a young dancer and how he was standing there in front of a packed audience when someone sighed loudly, causing the audience to break out laughing. He suspects that it was also an intrigue, but of a different kind than the ones you find today. "I simply kept dancing in the face of the laughter," Yanin says, "and forced the audience to quiet down and marvel at my dancing."

But he was powerless against the intrigue that unfolded this spring. Someone posted pictures of him having sex with men on the Internet and sent the link to thousands of e-mail addresses. Homosexuality is still taboo in Russia, where society somehow manages to be extremely progressive and extremely conservative at the same time.

Risky Innovation

In the past, it was grateful guests who came to the Bolshoi to marvel at the dancers. They were happy to be able to score tickets just few times in their lives. Today, the audiences consist mainly of tourists, for whom visiting the Bolshoi is just another item to check off their list of must-see places. Soon, the die-hard theater fans will also be coming arriving and comparing its productions to those of theaters in Paris. But they will have a hard time coming out on top with just "Swan Lake," the Bolshoi's trademark production in the past.

Experiments are both wanted and controversial in all European theaters, but innovation goes against the grain of Russia's artistic self-image. For too long, the arts were dominated by Socialist realism, in which experiments were seen as "decadent" and "Western." Tradition was in demand, and that meant Russian opera and classical ballet.

But that will now change at the Bolshoi. "Theater is not a museum," General Director Iksanov says, "but a living being." He is announcing changes, but even when the Bolshoi staged a few modern productions in years past, Moscow's papers were quick to run cover stories with the heading: "Scandal!"

In 2006, the young Russian opera director Dmitry Chernyakov directed Peter Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin," which is based on the famous verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. It was first performed at the Bolshoi in 1881 and has been a favorite ever since.

The opera is considered part of the canon of Russia's artworks. But Chernyakov brought a modernized version of "Onegin" to the Bolshoi's temporary stage that didn't include a key scene: the duel. An "Onegin" without a duel? It was unheard of.

The Prima Donna Assoluta

One person was particularly outraged: Galina Vishnevskaya. A world-famous soprano, she had been the prima donna assoluta at the Bolshoi for 22 years, from 1952 to 1974. She is also the widow of Mstislav Rostropovich, who is considered one of the most important cellists of all time.

When Vishnevskaya saw the new "Onegin," she left the theater in a rage and wrote an open letter, stating that she would never set foot in the Bolshoi again.

Today, Vishnevskaya runs an opera school that wealthy patrons built for her a few years ago in the neoclassical style. The singer, now 84, is sitting in a leather armchair in one of the practice rooms. In the old photos behind her, she looks like a young Liz Taylor. She still keeps her hair black today, and she has a friendly look in her pale eyes.

She is full of interesting stories about her early years at the Bolshoi: about how pleased she was when Stalin died in 1953 and she would no longer have to sing in front of him; about how she met Rostropovich and married him four days later; about how the couple befriended Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and let him take refuge in their dacha for five years, though not without the knowledge of the authorities; how, in the early 1970s, they had had enough of repression and went to the West; and how they returned in 1990 and were received by cheering crowds at the Bolshoi.

When asked why she -- after being both a state-supported artist and a dissident -- is opposed to opera being produced in a more modern way, she replies: "I don't see why it is necessary to mess with the work of a genius. Tchaikovsky knew what he was doing, and so did Pushkin." She refuses to budge about her negative view of the production, and there is no point in discussing it further.

Vishnevskaya has had her own experiences with art, and it becomes apparent when she teaches. One of her female students walks into the room. She wants to practice the aria sung by the character Olga in "Eugene Onegin." She opens her score and begins to sing. The diva closes her eyes and starts singing herself at a certain point. She transforms herself into Olga and, in doing so, she reveals that categories like Socialist Realism or modernity mean nothing to her. For Vishnevskaya, art cannot be co-opted. She distrusts today's modernizers today for the same reason she distrusted the communists who sought to use art for their own purposes. For Vishnevskaya, traditionalism means defending the sanctity of the arts.

Fewer Props, More Psychology

But who is this young opera innovator who, with his production of "Onegin," has brought about such a revolutionary change in the way things are performed at the Bolshoi Theater? Dmitry Chernyakov will also stage the opening gala and the first major opera premier after the reopening, "Ruslan and Lyudmila," on Nov. 2. The fact that Chernyakov was given these important commissions is a sign that he represents the future.

At 41, Chernyakov is young for a director of his caliber, and he has also directed productions at the Bavarian State Opera and the Berlin State Opera. He was 12 in 1982 when went to the Bolshoi for the first time in with his mother. "Moscow was gray," he says. "Here, in this theater, a magical world unfolded." Of course, it was a production of "Eugene Onegin," he says, a version that had been produced with almost no changes for the last 40 years.

When asked about his detractors, Chernyakov asks: "When will this finally stop?" It's all a misunderstanding, he says, pointing out that he doesn't do director's theater like many of his Western counterparts. "It isn't about the director and what he wants or about making the plays more modern," he argues. "I want them to become more truthful."

Chernyakov is interested in the psychological of the characters, as it is set out in the score. What he no longer wants to direct is the kind of theater that has grown customary at the Bolshoi, one that puts so much focus on scenery and props, such as the fur hats and a snowy landscape in "Onegin."

He will not discuss his plans for the opening gala, but it has already been leaked that only Russian operas will be performed. Like a true Muscovite, Chernyakov is someone who values patriotism above all -- and no clean breaks.

At the opening gala, Chernyakov will be pacing nervously back and forth behind the stage, hoping that the audience likes the way he portrays things.

Galina Vishnevskaya is also invited, of course. And, despite her vows to the contrary, she will attend. "But if I don't like it," she says, raising her index finger, "I'll leave in the intermission."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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