Putting History on Centre Stage
A short walk away from Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, there stands an imposing building - its grand frontage supported by elegant neoclassical columns, and four horses galloping across its intricately carved pediment.
Here, in the political heart of Russia, lies Moscow’s cultural heart - the Bolshoi Theatre.
Verdi's Don Carlo echoes through its open atriums, and the reverberations of ballet dancers’ feet can be felt through the rehearsal room's floor. This is a building steeped in history, indeed, it is a building that has withstood almost everything that history’s most turbulent and destructive periods could throw at it.
This is the story of the famed halls of Russia’s Bolshoi Theatre.
On December 30, 1780, Maddox and Urusov opened the ‘Petrovsky’ theatre to house their new company, so named because it stood on Petrovka Street in central Moscow.
The Petrovsky Theatre, which was built in record quick time – less than six months – was the first public theatre building of such grandeur and beauty to be erected in Moscow.
However, the financial burden of such a project soon weighed on the partners. By the time the theatre opened, Urusov had already ceded his business rights to Maddox. And Maddox too would go on to face debts and financial hardship. By 1796 his royal 'privilege' to run a theatre had expired, and so both the Petrovsky and its debts were transferred into government hands.
But all was not lost for the upstart English tightrope walker: the Empress Maria Feodorovna gifted Maddox a life-long pension of 3,000 roubles in gratitude to his service to the Russian theatre.
But once again disaster struck this Moscow monument. After operating for 30 years, the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre was again hit by a fire in 1853. The fire ravaged the structure for three days, burning everything from musical instruments and costumes, to the stone structure itself!
The rebuilding and restoration of the Bolshoi to its former glory began almost immediately under the watchful eye of architect Alberto Cavos (1800-1863).
Within just three years his restoration work was completed - finished quickly so that it could host Emperor Alexander II’s coronation celebrations. And, despite its various disasters and pitfalls, this is largely the structure that still stands today
According to experts at the Bolshoi theatre, there is a secret hidden in the mural of Apollo and the Muses, painted by Alexei Titov: "in place of one of the canonic muses – Polyhymnia, the Muse of the sacred hymn, Titov has depicted a muse of his own invention – the Muse of painting – with palette and brush in hand."
On December 7, 1919 the theatre changed its name from the 'Imperial Bolshoi Theatre' to the 'State Academic Bolshoi Theatre'.
As a symbol of Imperial excess and bourgeois entertainment, for a long time the new Communist state debated closing the Bolshoi’s doors permanently. But instead, the Bolshoi was incorporated into the new political order, playing host to Soviet meetings and events.
After a period of steady decay, the Bolshoi theatre was closed for repairs and renovations in the spring of 1941. But, just two months later, Moscow was invaded by the Nazis.
The Bolshoi Theatre Company parted ways, with performers evacuated, joining the Red Army, or entertaining the troops - although some also remained, continuing to give performances in Moscow.
Despite the turbulent political events of the 20th Century, the Bolshoi continued to attract audiences to its incredible performances. Landmark premiere's include: Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, Adam's Giselle, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and Khachaturian's Spartacus.
The famed prima ballerina Maya Mikhaylovna Plisetskaya (1925-2015) was also a member of the Bolshoi Ballet company, rising through the ranks to become an international ballet superstar in the latter half of the 20th Century.