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The Bolshoi gets its groove back

Four Russian Ballet Dancers
file photo
After six years, $730 million spent on renovations and copious delays, on Friday the storied main stage of the Bolshoi Theater is finally set to reopen. Following decades of Soviet disrepair, the revamped acoustics, restored mosaics and 40,000 meters of underground extensions have restored the theater to its original glory -- and then some. The world-renowned theater has faced serious structural problems ever since it opened in 1825, when it was built on stilts resting in moist soil. However, it survived heavy damage from an 1853 fire to become one of the world's preeminent theaters, irrevocably connected in the public imagination to its ballet, which began at a Moscow orphanage in the 18th century before becoming attached to the theater.

Under the Romanovs, the theater served as the backdrop to coronations of Russian tsars from Alexander II to Nikolai II. Though Lenin maneuvered to have the imperial symbol blown up in 1919, it was retained as a cultural icon and highlevel political meeting place, replacing the tsarist double-headed eagle above the stage with a hammer and sickle.

Stalin promoted the theater's domestic cachet, elevating the status and salary of Bolshoi soloists to the level of a minister. Following his death, the Bolshoi ballet began touring all over the world, earning the theater international renown.

But the Soviet era left the building in poor shape, with shoddy concrete floors installed in the main hall and orchestra pit and 19th century murals covered up by paint. As a result of the building's ruined acoustics, "there arose the impression that in Russian opera it's common to force the sound," said general director Anatoly Iskanov in an interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets.

"Now we have the opportunity to rehabilitate Russian vocalists," he said.

The restoration project has proceeded less than smoothly. The overhaul was originally projected to cost $610 million, a figure that ballooned after construction engineers deemed the building 75 percent unstable. In 2009, the prosecutor's office launched an inquiry over misspent funds, which resulted in the firing of numerous construction officials.

But the completed renovations promise a host of welcome changes for workers, performers and fans alike. On a tour of the theater in August, Iskanov told The Moscow News that the theater's sound quality has been improved by the restoration of original fretwork and spruce wood acoustic shields, as well as the addition of new acoustic systems in the orchestra pit, new floors and an acoustic-friendly curtain. Now an aria should sound the same from every seat.

Decorative flourishes such as mirrors, paneling and Venetian mosaics have also been restored to their former luster. Completing the move away from the Soviet-era Bolshoi, the original imperial eagle now hangs in place of the hammer and sickle above the stage.

Under the theater lie new spaces equivalent in size to a six-story building. In addition to providing room for sets to be lowered and stored below ground, the subterranean lair boasts a spacious new concert and rehearsal room.

With the Bolshoi's regal sound and looks restored, it remains to be seen whether its repertoire will remain rooted in the 19th century. Although the Bolshoi has fielded criticism for staying too faithful to its classical repertoire, recent attempts at producing experimental new work haven't been greeted with open arms. Last year, Dmitry Chernyakov's production of Alban Berg's avant-garde opera "Wozzeck" garnered critical admiration but public disdain; Angelin Preljocaj's modern ballet "And then, One Thousand Years Peace. Creation 2010" met a similar fate.

As the curtain rises on the new season, much is at stake for the Bolshoi opera and ballet companies, which have suffered drops in state funding and international prestige since the end of the Soviet era. As the main stage reopening has approached, ticket sales have been up, with all October performances selling out far in advance.

To please fans lining up for the main stage's new season, the theater is mostly playing it safe. The inaugural performance on the restored main stage will be a new production of Glinka's classic "Ruslan and Lyudmila" staged by Dmitry Chernyakov, followed by Bolshoi favorites "Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker" and a revival of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov."

But Chernyakov, whose innovative production of "Eugene Onegin" in 2006 induced soprano Galina Vishnevskaya to declare she would never return to the theater again, could help ensure that theatergoers don't get too comfy in their new seats.

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