Bolshoi Theater: Truly Great

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At the end of October, the renewed and rejuvenated Bolshoi Theater will give its first performance; the company will start rehearsing in the main building at the beginning of the autumn. The high quality of the restoration of this Moscow masterpiece, which is a truly national asset, has been confirmed by a special UNESCO commission…

The physical characteristics of Russia’s Bolshoi Theater are best understood in comparison, for example, with Milan’s legendary La Scala or Paris’s famous L’Opera Garnier… The Italian theater looks quite trivial on the outside, and there is no special square around it. The inside atmosphere is, of course, more pompous. Stalls go up to the ceiling. The curtain surprises one with the richness of its ornament. The boxes are decorated with garlands of molding; the abundance of gilding makes one blink. The conductor sings along, forgetting himself during the performance, every aria is performed encore, the performance is now and then interrupted with applause.

By the way, La Scala and Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater share the year of birth. The construction of the Milan theater began in 1776, and in the same year, Russian Empress Catherine II signed a decree about the desirability of opening a theater in Moscow. Having received it, Prince Urusov, the province’s procurator, began building the city’s first opera house.

The atmosphere of the Paris Opera is very different from that of La Scala. First of all, it is perhaps the oldest one in Europe. Secondly, it is reigned by the spirit of geometry in line with the style of Paris and Versailles’ orderly parks. There is no liberty, no flourish a la crиme brulee, no excess of shape and form. Singers of L’Opera perform harmoniously, everything is ensemble, there is no applause in the middle of the action, or you will be hissed at. The Italian practice of playing the entire scene encore is not accepted here. The opera in Paris is part of a ceremony. It is the parade of opera troops at Place de la Concorde. In the orchestra stalls, connoisseurs are flipping through the music scores, and the conductor would not sing along and stand on tiptoe even if his life depended on it.

In other words, the French approach to organizing the show is closer to ours… The Bolshoi Theater built by architect Osip Bove is first of all a place to educate a Russian citizen. This is why it looks like a government institution on the outside; it is strict and solemn; it has nothing of La Scala’s intimacy or Paris’s vignettes, only the columns, the classic portico and the bronze Apollo quadriga, harnessed by the Olympian’s iron hand. The faзade bears the Russian emblem. There is a grand square around the theater. On the right, there is the State Duma, and on the left, within a ten minutes’ walk, the buildings of the state security services. Art and authority teamed together.

The image of the Bolshoi as a national theater implies its openness for any audience. Yes, the stalls are given to the famous and wealthy, but there is the gallery, a ticket to which is affordable to any student. Getting a ticket is not much of a problem either; sometimes even a seat in the stalls can be bought an hour before the show, which is absolutely unthinkable of in Milan or Paris.

The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow was created and exists as a state within a state. From the very beginning, the authorities viewed it as a parade ground to demonstrate the triumph of the state. The budget and repertoire were in line with the goal. The very first performance, “Triumph of Muses”, in January 1825 was presented as the muster of patriotic feelings: the allegory in verse narrated about the Genius of Russia teaming up with classic Muses to build a new colossus on the ruins of the stage (the theater’s first building had unfortunately burned down). The response of the contemporary audience was remarkable. Slavophil writer Sergei Aksakov first of all admired “the huge building,” while Westernizer Vladimir Odoyevsky was enthusiastic about the “theatrical magnificence.” So, even opposite parties shared the awe of the project’s scale.

The monarchs pampered their Moscow imperial theater, and the apogee of its pre-revolution era glory was perhaps the premier of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s historical opera “Maid of Pskov,” where the great Fyodor Shalyapin appeared as Ivan the Terrible. The Russian idea of a theater reached its climax in the massive figure of the legendary singer: the voice, the personality, the nationwide popularity, the spirit of Orthodox Christianity and the monarchial pathos.

The theater’s repertoire was mainly historical, it serving as a stage for big passions and events: Mikhail Glinka’s “Life for the Tsar” and “Ruslan and Lyudmila”, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” “Mazepa” and “Swan Lake”, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Snow Maiden,” and Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” Ballets were also more often heroic than not, for example, Ludwig Minkus’s “Don Quixote” choreographed by Marius Petipa. At the beginning of the 20th century, the stars of the epoch were singers Leonid Sobinov and Antonina Nezhdanover, composers Anton Rubinstein and Sergei Rakhmaninov, artists of the Mir Iskusstva art group Konstantin Korovin, Vasily Polenov, Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois and Alexander Golovin…

After the fall of the monarchy and Bolsheviks’ victory, the theater’s fate hung on a thread. It was actually shut down, the building used to host party congresses and conferences. But soon it was reconstructed and then reopened as a state academic theater, and after Joseph Stalin was finally established as the country’s leader, the theater’s role increased. Stalin surrounded the theater’s company with incredible luxury for that time. The celebrities were lavished with titles, awards, country houses, cars… At the time, joining the famous theater was considered the top of an actor’s career.

The theater was awarded with the orders of Lenin; as many as 80 actors received the title of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union, 60 got Stalin awards and the most distinguished became Heroes of Socialist Labor…

The ultimate reflection of the Soviet leader’s autocratic love for the theater was the Bolshoi’s pompous repertoire, where Boris Asafyev’s revolutionary ballet “Flames of Paris” was staged along with Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and Stanislaw Moniuszko’s “Halka” as an example of postwar creativity of a fraternal nation. The works of contemporary Western composers were banned, and music by Soviet composers was subject to severe supervision. It suffices to recall the episode of Dmitry Shostakovich’s brilliant opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” being lashed out by the Communist Party.

Stalin’s ferule resulted in the Bolshoi gradually shifting towards ballets, where control was weaker and the cult of stars stronger. The name of dancer Galina Ulanova was known to everyone in the country. This ballet bias has actually survived till our days, pushing the opera to the sidelines. With all respect to opera prima donnas, the fame of Maya Plisetskaya has been much greater.

The most important events of the Soviet era were connected to ballet: choreographer Yuri Grigorovich became the leading figure of the Bolshoi, staging Sergei Prokofyev’s “The Tale of the Stone Flower” and Aram Khachaturian’s “Spartak.” Grigorovich also became the symbol of the theater’s decline: his resignation coincided with the Soviet Union’s breakup and the Bolshoi’s struggle to regain its previous glory.

The alarming signs of the lost balance could be seen in invitations to join the theater that were given to film director Alexander Sokurov or purely theatrical masters, like Temur Chkheidze and Eimuntas Nekrosius. The staging of Leonid Desyatnikov’s “Rosenthal’s Children” resulted in a scandal, with music unable to assuage the gloomy spirit of the libretto author’s vivisection. The period of hopes related to the arrival of the new choreographer Alexei Ratmansky was short: he staged a few noticeable ballets, but they lacked the grand style, were chamber and somewhat extravagant for the academic stage. Even chief conductor Alexander Vedernikov left the theater. But its company reached a mind-boggling 1,000 people (when it was first founded, the company consisted of 13 musicians and 25 actors).

On July 1, 2005, the Bolshoi was shut down for full restoration. Its premiers and current repertoire were moved to the theater’s New stage. The opening of the Big stage has already been scheduled for October 2, 2011.

The reconstruction has already cost an astronomical sum of €500 million. But it has been worth it. The theater’s area has been increased by 100% and reached 80,000 sq m. The building designed by the great Bove and the Teatralnaya Square have been transformed, and the Bolshoi will now be Europe’s stage No.1, leaving all the other stages in Paris, Naples, London and Berlin pale in comparison. The inside reconstruction and complete overhaul of the equipment promises the audience a first-rate show, and the climax of the changes will be the installation of a unique organ with 31 registers and 2 manuals.

Let us have a look at the official website. It gives you the feel of the reconstruction. Here are a few random lines:

The escalator and the panoramic elevator have been assembled…

Lift platforms have been made for the underground concert hall (!)…

Gilding of decorating elements has been completed… the hall is full of sparkle…

A contest for the youth opera program has been announced…

There are three months left till the Bolshoi’s reopening…

Anatoly Korolev, writer, member of the Russian PEN club