The Bolshoi Theatre

The Russian Bolshoi Theatre has always been and remains one of the iconic sights of our state and its culture. It is the major Russian national theatre and the bearer of Russian music culture traditions, as well as the center of world music culture. It contributes to the development of national performing arts. There are many foreign theatre-goers coming to Moscow specially to attend Theatre plays or visiting guest performances abroad; the Bolshoi Theatre presents to them a wide range of Russian classical art heritage, thus creating new ideas in music and drama art development in Russia.

On 28 March (17 March by the Julian calendar) 1776, Catherine II approved a certain “privilege” to the prosecutor, Prince Pyotr Urusov, to maintain performances, masquerades, balls and other kinds of entertainment, for a term of ten years. It is the very date when the Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre was considered as founded.

As far back as 1805 Moscow sets off a project of creating Theatre Directorate “in the image and likeness” of St. Petersburg’s one. In 1806 the project was carried out, and the Moscow Theatre gained the status of the Imperial Theatre, thus passing under control of joint Imperial Theatre Directorate.

In 1819 they ran a competition for a new theatre building design instead of a burnt-out one. It was Andrey Mihailov, a professor of the Academy of Arts, whose design won; however, it was found too cost-intensive. Finally Moscow Governor, Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, ordered architect Joseph Bové to revise it, and the latter did; moreover, he significantly improved the design.

In July 1820 construction of a new theatre building began; that building was to become the center of architectural composition of the square and adjacent streets. The façade, the portico of which featured eight columns and a statue of Apollo in a three-horse chariot, fronted the Theatre Square under construction, making it stand out.

On 6 January 1825 a grand formal opening of a new theatre building occurred. Though straight plays were still put on stage, the Theatre started to add increasingly more opera and ballets to its repertoire. Pieces of art by Donizetti, Rossini, Meyerbeer, and young Verdi were staged, as well as works of Russian composers, i.e. Verstovsky and Glinka. The building of the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre existed for almost 30 years. But it suffered the same fate, i. e. on 11 March 1853 a fire broke out in the Theatre, it was raging for three days and destroyed all out. Theatre cars, costumes, musical instruments, music score, pieces of scenery and host of other things burnt out. The building itself was almost gutted, there only left scorched stone walls and portico columns. Renovation works raced up. In May 1855 the ruins were cleared away and refurbishment began. As early as in August 1856 the building flung its doors open again to the public. Such rapid performance is explained due to the fact that construction process had to be done by celebration of Emperor Alexander II coronation.

The Bolshoi Theatre, built almost from scratch and changed significantly as compared to the former building, opened on 20 August 1856 with the opera “The Puritans” by Vincenzo Bellini. Although Bové’s porticos with columns survived, the front façade image has changed greatly. A second frontispiece appeared; Apollo’s three-horse chariot was replaced by a bronze quadriga. The pediment inner surface was decorated with alabaster bas-relief, demonstrating winging geniuses with lyre.

In the latter half of the 19th century the Bolshoi Theatre was considered the best in terms of acoustic characteristics in the world. The building owed this fact to Alberto Cavos, who designed the Auditorium as a huge musical instrument. Everything in the Auditorium contributed to its acoustics, i. e. the walls were fit-out with sonorous spruce panels; iron ceiling was replaced to a wooden one; the ornamental plafond was made of wooden panels; even the loge décor was all of papier-mâché. In order to improve auditorium acoustics, Cavos also filled the rooms under the circle, where a cloakroom used to locate, and moved the latter to the stalls level.

After the 1917 Revolution the curtains of the Imperial Theatre were taken off. In 1920, while working on the opera “Lohengrin”, state designer Fyodor Fedorovsky created bronze-tone tableau curtains, which would become the basic ones later on. In 1935 Fyodor Fedorovsky created a scratch for a new curtains to be further implemented ; the curtains had weaved revolutionary dates over them – “1871, 1905, 1917”. From 1955 and for fifty years on, famous gold “Soviet” curtains by Fyodor Fedorovsky, weaved with the USSR national symbols, had been dominating the theatre stage.

As the majority of buildings on Teatralnaya Square, the Bolshoi Theatre was built on piles. The building had been gradually falling into decay. Drainage works lowered the ground-water level. The upper part of the piles rotted, and this caused considerable building foundation settlement. Foundation repairs, carried out in 1895 and 1898, helped to cease ongoing deteriorating process for the time being.

It was on 28 February 1917 when the last play was staged in the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. As early as on 13 March the State Bolshoi Theatre opened its doors to the public.

In April 1941 the Bolshoi Theatre was closed for the required repair works. But in two months the Great Patriotic War broke out. Part of the Theatre staff was evacuated to Kuibyshev, but another part left in Moscow and kept performing on the stage of a Theatre branch building. Many artists performed amongst troops, others went to fight at the front. On 22 October 1941 the Bolshoi Theatre building was bombed. The bomb blast passed aslant between the portico columns, breached the façade wall and caused considerable fractures in the entrance hall. Despite all wartime hardships and extreme cold, in winter 1942 the theatre recovery works started. And as early as in autumn 1943 the Bolshoi Theatre resumed its performance by staging Mikhail Glinka’s opera “A Life for the Tsar”.

Under the very roof, in the former Scenery hall of the theatre building a large Rehearsal hall was fit out and then opened in 1960 . And in 1975, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Theatre, some renovation works were carried out in the Auditorium and Beethoven Hall. However, the major problems hadn’t been solved, i. e. the foundation instability and lack of space inside the theatre building.

In 2005 the Bolshoi Theatre closed for refurbishment and reconstruction. But that’s another chapter of the Bolshoi Theatre chronicle.

There are excursions arranged over the theatre building, where visitors could attend rehearsals behind closed door, watch scenery installation process, visit Grand and Small imperial halls, where exhibitions are shown, go upstairs to the second tier, to the main lodge, and then down to the underground Beethoven hall-transformer. Exhibitions, hosted by the theatre, are also available to visitors during excursion.

After years-long reconstruction the Bolshoi Theatre re-opened with a gala concert in 2011.

The Bolshoi Theatre regained to a large extent its historical appearance, having been lost during Soviet government administration. The Auditorium and a part of its suit halls resumed the very look they were originally designed by Alberto Cavos, the architect of the Bolshoi Theatre. The former Imperial Foyer halls are reconstructed as in 1895, when their interiors were changed for the celebration of the Emperor Nikolay II crowning. The halls of the Auditorium suit were restored, i. e. the Main Entrance Hall, the White Foyer, Choral, Exhibition, Round and Beethoven halls. Today the Muscovites and visitors to the capital are able to view restored façades and renovated symbol of the Bolshoi Theatre — the famous Apollo’s quadriga, created by sculptor Peter Clodt.

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