Feb 11, 2016


The Bolshoi Theatre

Putting History on Centre Stage

Exterior view of the Bolshoi Theatre

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.

The Historic Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

From the Petrovsky to the Bolshoi: The History of the Theatre

In 1766, a 19-year-old English tightrope walker by the name of Michael Maddox arrived in Moscow, Russia to find his fortune. As well as being a performer, Maddox was also the manager of a museum of 'mechanical and physical representations'.

There he met Prince Pyotr Urusov, the Moscow proseсutor, who had heard of Maddox’s success at the Haymarket theatre in London. With Maddox on board as a partner, Urusov planned to create a brand new theatre for Moscow.

The Little Theatre in Haymarket, 1875

On March 28, 1776 - 240 years ago - Empress Catherine II granted Maddox and Urusov a royal 'privilege' (or license), granting them permission to organise public entertainment. And so the Bolshoi was born...

'Portrait of Catherine II', by Dimitrii Grigorievich Levitskii, 1788 (collection: Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens)

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.

The Petrovsky Theatre in Moscow, 1780 (collection: Bolshoi Theatre)

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.

Photo of Empress Maria Fedorovna, the wife Of Alexander II, 1847 (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

Fire in the auditorium: overcoming adversity

But Maddox and Prince Urusov’s life's work, the Petrovsky theatre, would soon burn to the ground on October 8, 1805.

In 1819, 14 years later, Imperial authorities launched a competition to discover a new architect and design for Moscow’s prime theatre. Andrei Mikhailov, a professor at the Academy of Arts, won the competition.

By the summer of 1820, work had started on building the new theatre, which was planned as a central feature of the newly designed ‘Theatre Square’. The new theatre opened on January 6, 1825 and, as it was much larger than its predecessor, it became known as the Big (Большо́й теа́тр, or “Bolshoi”) Petrovsky Theatre.

The Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre, 1830 (collection: The Bolshoi 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.

The Great Imperial Theatre in Moscow, 1856 (collection: The Bolshoi Theatre)
Tsar Alexander II, Александр II, 1855 - 1881 (collection: Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation)
View of the Bolshoi Theatre and Theatre Square, by P. Pavlov’s Photographic Studio, 1890 - 1900 (collection: The Bolshoi Theatre)

Gilt mouldings and luxurious red velvet: The building and architecture of the Bolshoi today

Architect Alberto Cavos said, "I tried to decorate the auditorium as extravagantly but at the same time as lightly as possible, in Renaissance taste mixed with Byzantine style..."

The Historic Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

"The white light, interspersed with gold, the bright crimson draping of the interiors of the boxes..."

The royal box at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

"...the stucco arabesques, different for each floor..."

The auditorium of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

"...and the main eye-catcher of the auditorium – the huge chandelier consisting of three tiers of lights and candelabras decorated with crystal – all this has aroused universal approval"

The chandelier at the Historic Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

This chandelier was originally composed of 300 oil lamps, which had to be lit by hand from a secret opening in the circular ceiling.

The Bolshoi Theater chandelier, taken by Howard Sochurek (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)
Ceiling of the Historic Stage at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

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."

Ceiling detail, The Historic Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

Taking its cue from the style of 19th-century Italian theatres, the Bolshoi - with its lavish gilt interior and red velvet draperies - is as alluring as the great theatres dotted across Europe, from La Fenice in Venice to the Palais Garnier in Paris.

The Bolshoi Theater, by Howard Sochurek (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

The Bolshoi is a masterpiece of theatre design. Its architecture has been molded by adversity - with each consecutive architect adding another page to the story of this remarkable building.

Bolshoi Theater, by Howard Sochurek (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)
The Bolshoi Theatre in 1970 (collection: The Bolshoi Theatre)

From Imperial entertainment to Soviet symbol: History and Politics take center stage

As an icon of Russia, the Bolshoi has taken on varied meanings throughout the country's history, and, as we can see in the Tsar’s box, frequently politics has taken the centre stage.

From being an Imperial center, frequented by the Tsars, to a Soviet meeting hall, the Bolshoi has been with Russia every step of its history for over 150 years.

Detail of the royal box, the Historic Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

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.

F. Fyodorovsky's design for the Bolshoi's curtain, featuring communist symbolism, 1955 (collection: The Bolshoi Theatre)
Sketch of the curtain of the Bolshoi Theater, by Fyodor Fyodorovich Fyodorovsky, 1952 (collection: The Bolshoi Theatre)

Indeed, it was from the Bolshoi Theatre stage that the formation of a new country – the USSR – was proclaimed.

The Bolshoi Theatre in November 1956, by Edward Clark (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

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.

Red Army Recruits in September 10, 1941 (collection: Getty Images)

Later that year, a German bomb would fall on the Bolshoi Theater itself. But this was no match for the hardy Bolshoi! Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it once again resisted destruction. Despite the continuing war, it was renovated and re-opened again by 1943.

Winter In Moscow, by Carl Mydans, December 1959 (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

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.

The Bolshoi enters a new era

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the Bolshoi entered a new era in its long and tumultuous history (albeit with one eye on the building's historical origins).

From July 2005 to October 2011, the theatre was closed for restoration. The renovation works sought to restore the building to its pre-Soviet appearance, while also improving acoustics that had been compromised by Soviet amendments to the structure.

The ornate stucco and sumptuous velvet interiors were removed and restored, with their glittering appearance returned using a Medieval gilding recipe that includes gold and even vodka!

And, as the Soviet hammer and sickle insignia was replaced with the double-headed eagle of the original Russian coat of arms, the Bolshoi attempted to recapture its 19th Century atmosphere.

The Historic Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

240 years on, the Bolshoi Theatre Company begun by Maddox and Prince Urusov still calls this site home.

And, re-opened in 2011, the hallowed halls of the Bolshoi are once again filled with the soaring magic of an aria, or the evocative beauty of a grand jeté.

The Bolshoi Ballet company, photo taken by Darren Thomas on June 7, 2013 (collection: Queensland Performing Arts Centre)

And this is where, each night, 240 years of Russian history and culture step on stage with the performers.

Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
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