A velvet and gilt trip

Sunlit against a cloudless blue sky, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow looked glorious. After six years and as many hundred million dollars, this great theatre is restored to life. For decades the theatre had needed repair: the splendours of Alberto Cavos’s original 1856 structure were masked by increasing decrepitude, a war-time bomb had taken its toll and production facilities were precarious – a friend, designing a ballet there, was told: “If you have to go under the stage, don’t touch anything!”

Since its closure in July 2005 there have been delays, assertions of malpractice and then the arrival of the Summa Group (in shining armour) to drive reconstruction to a triumphant realisation, as I saw in the opening performances of The Sleeping Beauty which initiated the ballet troupe’s life in its new home.

Be it said at once that the restored Bolshoi is a triumph: in doubling the theatre’s working areas; in its theatrical engineering; and in preserving the structure that Cavos created. Archival research, respect for 19th-century procedures in manner and means and style, have re-created Cavos’s theatre, even unto the fashions of gilding, of decorating, of re-making chandeliers, restoring paint colours. Here is a triumph in understanding the identity of an Imperial theatre.

Jean Cocteau wrote of “the red and gold disease” that afflicts us as we develop an addiction to 19th-century opera houses – to Covent Garden, to Garnier’s Paris Opéra, to the old Met in New York, for those temples where velvet and gilding are the outward and visible sign of a taste for Verdi and Petipa. The rebuilt Bolshoi is an apotheosis of this manner. The central painted ceiling shows the roundel of Apollo with the muses; each of the six tiers of balconies has its chandeliers.

The stage curtain, silken in gold and silver and rose thread, is both exquisite and fire-proof. The floor of the stalls is still bare wood, with seating in wooden chairs (very comfortable) so that nothing shall cloud the acoustics. Everywhere there is the sense of history honoured.

Yury Grigorovich’s Sleeping Beauty replaces his earlier and traditional production. The manner is grandiose and trapped in its design. Ezio Frigerio’s permanent set is an imposing perspective of ivory and gold columns, the manner high baroque, with a distant setting of a sea port in the manner of Claude, and a central view of an unexplained temple.

It is impressive, but remains throughout and is inimical to any varied sense of location. Franca Squarciapino’s costuming makes the proper historical leap from Louis XIV to Louis XVI; dress is stylish, although the curse of the sequin lies heavily on the outfits.

Grigorovich’s decision to play the ballet in two acts has meant losses in expansiveness and the cutting of the Panorama, and the now prevalent filleting of the Hunting scene, which is important dramatically and musically.

Various other trimmings of the score strike me as abuse of Tchaikovsky’s structure. Under Vasily Sinaisky’s baton the drama was vivid (the overture made us sit up!) and the ballet troupe produced dancing of similar verve. The opening night brought Svetlana Zakharova as Aurora, radiant, achieving ravishing effects of contrapposto as head and shoulders were framed by her raised arms.

Her partner was David Hallberg, who has joined the troupe from American Ballet Theatre. Elegant in all things, boasting a space-cleaving jump, he is a princely dancer and well seen here. The second performance introduced Nina Kaptsova as Aurora. She is a dancer of elegant classic style, musical, finding her charming identity in the choreography: at the end of her performance, Sergey Filin, director of the ballet, came on stage and announced her promotion to the rank of “prima ballerina”. Cheers. Her Prince was Alexander Volchkov, wearing the role with an aristocratic air, speaking its vocabulary in fine style. For the rest, the Bolshoi’s dancers entered on to this new stage and proclaimed it theirs. It is a great and glorious place.


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