03 Sep 2011

Bolshoi Theater Restoration Nearing Completion

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The most recent issue of the Wall Street Journal’s monthly answer to the New York Times Sunday Magazine, WSJ, came out last Saturday, a week ago today, and featured a fascinating article on the Russian government’s painstaking restoration of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.

Next month the red and gold curtain goes up for the first time in six years at Moscow’s legendary Bolshoi Theater, revealing a restoration that is the biggest, most meticulous overhaul the landmark building has received since it opened in 1856. Costing more than $720 million and directly supervised by the nearby Kremlin (even the deadline for the October 28 opening was set by presidential order), the project has spared no expense—from chandeliers to artisanal gold leaf and embroidered silks—in restoring the Bolshoi’s grand public spaces to their original 19th-century design. Backstage has also been upgraded with sophisticated lighting and hydraulics equipment, transforming the storied cultural institution into Russia’s most modern venue for opera and ballet.

Paramount to the project was that the theater be re-created in the original vision of the czars—ornately beautiful and handcrafted—so no detail was considered too expensive or painstaking. Hundreds of spruce wall panels were imported from the Austrian Alps to replace those ripped out by the Bolsheviks to make room for party congresses; decorative silk coverings were remade from scratch in a special workshop within a Moscow monastery; artisans shipped in from across Russia spent months with agate styluses rubbing more than 3,000 square feet of gold leaf onto the six tiers of seats, and tens of thousands of crystal pendants were removed, catalogued and then either restored or replaced on the dozens of chandeliers throughout the building. It’s a feat that few capitals have attempted, preferring to keep historic theater buildings mainly for smaller performances while constructing new, modern houses for the full company repertoire. But when the current Bolshoi hall opened in 1856 for the coronation of Czar Alexander II, it was bigger and grander than nearly all its European contemporaries (bolshoi means “grand” in Russian), and that’s how Moscow would like it to remain. …

The current overhaul is the Bolshoi’s third reincarnation. First built in 1780, the theater burned to the ground twice in the 1800s. After a three-day conflagration in 1853 razed its relatively modest predecessor, the czar demanded a grander replacement. Albert Cavos, the Italian-trained architect who won the commission, designed the Bolshoi to mimic a musical instrument, with wood panels in the floors, ceiling and walls that would resonate and carry the sound, along with a vaguely violin-shaped main auditorium. “I tried to decorate the main hall as magnificently as possible but also lightly, in the style of the Renaissance, mixed with the Byzantine,” Cavos later wrote. Restoring that glory turned out to be a titanic task, however, because the Bolshoi’s disrepair dated back decades. In his rush to finish the project in time for the coronation, Cavos appears to have cut corners and the Bolshoi’s structural problems began within just a few years. In 1902, a sudden shift in the foundation jammed the doors of most of the boxes during a matinee, forcing terrified spectators to clamber along the balconies to escape.

The Bolshoi barely survived the early Bolsheviks, some of whom argued for shuttering what they saw as a symbol of aristocratic excess. Vladimir Lenin saved it, and Communist officials ordered that extra seats be stuffed into the main auditorium for party congresses. The theater also endured Soviet-era renovations—concrete was poured under the floor and into a special resonant chamber below the orchestra pit, dulling the sound—and a Nazi bombing in 1941, when an 1,100-pound bomb badly damaged the lobby.

When the theater was closed for renovation in 2005, engineers were shocked by what they found. Foot-wide cracks ran through the walls, and foundations had been reduced largely to dust. The stout columns on the front of the building were treated like arthritic joints, rubbed with special salves and wrapped in plastic for weeks to leach decades of pollution from the limestone. After removing the Soviet-era concrete from under the floor, restorers considered replacing the original mechanism of large stone balls that allowed the auditorium floor to tilt for performances but quickly become flat for grand imperial balls. That update proved too complex, but designers did steepen the angle to improve sight lines and house a larger orchestra pit—big enough for Wagner. “You will feel the fortissimo in your body,” says one engineer. …

The Soviet hammer and sickle… [has] been replaced with the original double-headed eagle, the emblem of the Romanov dynasty that had pride of place over the Czar’s Box.

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