Russia’s Grandest Theatre: Past, Present and Future

PHOTO by JuliaSha / Depositphotos
MOSLENTA teamed up with historians and employees of the Bolshoi Theatre to take a closer look at one of Russia’s most recognised cultural institutions

A grand and imposing building, it was adorned by a statue of Apollo riding a chariot. This was the original structure of what is now known simply as the Bolshoi Theatre.

The First Bolshoi

The Bolshoi Theatre was initially privately owned and established by Prince Pyotr Vasilyevich Ouroussoff and English entrepreneur Michael Maddox. First known as the Petrovka Theatre, it was located on what is now Moscow’s Teatralnaya Square.

“The Petrovka Theatre gave its first performance in 1780,” Katerina Novikova, head of the Bolshoi Theatre Press Office, said. “Prior to its construction, the land belonged to [Prince] Lobanovy-Rostovskie and the area was surrounded by private households.”

The Petrovka Theatre burned down in the autumn of 1805, so the theatre’s troupe started to give performances on private stages, eventually settling for the wooden Arbat Theatre in 1808. Their new home did not last long either, meeting the fate of its predecessor during the 1812 Fire of Moscow that razed the city before Napoleon could seize it for himself.

Architect Andrei Mikhailov designed a new building in 1819 and construction began the following year. The building opened on Jan. 18 (Jan. 6 at the time, as the old Julian calendar was then still in use), 1825, as the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre.

It was at this opening that one of hallmarks of the modern Bolshoi Theatre was unveiled – the sculpture of Apollo riding a chariot, which was then drawn by only three horses. The mythical patron of arts eventually switched to a quadriga – a chariot drawn by four horses. This sculpture remains on the roof of the theatre to this day.

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The Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre, 19th century.

The opening of the new theatre was a major cultural event. The first performance at the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre became a two-day event, as the venue could not meet the demand of Muscovites in just one day.

In 1853, the theatre burned down once again in a three-day fire. The flames consumed everything inside the theatre and extensively damaged its exterior, almost destroying the building entirely.

Alberto Cavos, an Italian architect who also designed Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, was awarded the right to reconstruct the theatre.

Cavos built an amazing hall in terms of acoustics. Fir panels were used for the wall siding and a wooden ceiling replaced its metal predecessor, solutions that have since shown to be a great improvement.

Under a New Ruler

Following the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolshoi was not looking at a bright future. The new government planned on shutting down the theatre, but the building was chosen as the venue for government events – the All-Russian Congresses of Soviets, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and the World Congresses of the Communist International. In 1921, a special committee examined the building and classified it is as being in a state of disrepair. A decision was made to renovate it once again, this time under the auspices of civil engineer Ivan Rerberg.

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Delegates of the 5th All-Russian Congress of Soviets standing in front of the Bolshoi Theatre, which was used as the venue for the event, 1918.

Surviving the War

In the early 1940s, the area behind the Bolshoi was slated for destruction. Several houses were destined to be torn down to make way for the theatre’s auxiliary facilities. However, the beginning of the Second World War on the Eastern Front prevented these plans from coming to fruition and the theatre barely escaped destruction during the fighting.

“A 500-kilogram bomb landed on the Bolshoi Theatre on Oct. 28, 1941,” said the Moscow Defence State Museum’s Kirill Dryannov. “Its survival is a true miracle – the basement held around three tonnes of explosives at the time. During the war, many Moscow buildings were booby-trapped. The bomb exploded in the lobby and blew out the front wall.”

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A scene from Alexander Glazunov’s ballet “Raymonda,” 1945.

Despite the ongoing war, reconstruction of the theatre began almost immediately. Dryannov said that it took 240 days to rebuild the Bolshoi and it reopened in the autumn of 1943.

A New Scale

In the late 1980s, the Soviet government decided to reconstruct the Bolshoi Theatre yet again. It decided to build a new stage so that the troupe could perform during the reconstruction of the main building. Although the ground for the New Stage was first broken in 1995, it did not host its first performance until 2002.

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After The Bolshoi Theatre reconstruction

The latest renovation and reconstruction of the theatre took place between 2005 and 2011. The project also included the construction of a six-storey subterranean hall. Novikova said that this was the largest reconstruction effort in the last 150 years of the Bolshoi’s history.

Author: Yana Kremnyova