The rebirth of the Bolshoi theatre

A dazzling £400m refit has given Moscow's famous theatre a fresh start after years of alleged corruption

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The Independent Culture

The Bolshoi Theatre will throw open its doors again in October, after six years of extensive renovations. The state-funded opera and ballet company, which is just a stone's throw from the Kremlin, is one of Moscow's most iconic landmarks, and its management will be relieved the reconstruction work, which has been dogged by allegations of corruption and misspending, is finally drawing to a close.

The company managing the reconstruction said this week the theatre would look just as it did in the time of the tsars, with embroidered silk tapestry, and restored imperial insignia replacing the hammers and sickles of the Soviet era. The theatre's vast chandelier – eight metres (26ft) tall and weighing two tons – has been renovated and will be re-hung just before opening night. The gilt finishing reapplied throughout the theatre has been created using an old Russian technique involving vodka and egg whites.

"For us, the most important thing is the work being done to the stage and on-stage equipment," said Anatoly Iksanov, the theatre's general director. Additions include cutting-edge hydraulic stage devices, a redesigned stage floor to make things easier on ballet dancers' joints, and a new underground stage to be used for chamber concerts.

The project has not gone smoothly, costing some £400m – or around 16 times the initial estimate. In 2009, investigators said millions of roubles had been misspent by a subcontractor. Several contractors were fired from the project by the government, and there were repeated delays. But the management is now certain the theatre will be ready by the end of October so productions can return from a smaller, neighbouring theatre.

The Bolshoi has an extraordinary history that mirrors Russia's own. One of the city's first theatres opened on the spot of the Bolshoi in 1780, set up by Michael Maddox, a British tightrope walker, and a Russian aristocrat. It burned down and was replaced by a much grander structure in 1825. That burned down too but was renovated and reopened in 1856. After that, no major repair work was carried out until 2005. It was said to be on the verge of collapse, with the foundations in need of a major overhaul. The theatre might have long ago disappeared if some of the Bolsheviks had got their way in 1917. A leading avant-garde film of the time ended with the Bolshoi being demolished, as a symbol of the vile old aristocratic order.

In the end, however, the Bolsheviks appropriated the theatre, both for their own party congresses and to stage new, Soviet-friendly operas and ballets. Both Lenin and Stalin gave speeches at the Bolshoi, and it was here that Stalin stormed out of an opera by Dmitry Shostakovich at its halfway point, leading to a lengthy period of persecution for the legendary Soviet-era composer.

The theatre fell on hard times after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and was widely seen as losing out in the bitter battle for supremacy with the Mariinsky, also known as the Kirov, based in St Petersburg.

But in recent years, the Bolshoi has tried to shed a reputation for old-fashioned, plodding operas and ballets, handing productions to contemporary directors and hosting a number of experimental stagings. This has not always gone down well: the legendary soprano Galina Vishnevskaya said she would never again visit the Bolshoi after witnessing a contemporary production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin there.

More recently, the theatre was rocked earlier this year by scandal when the deputy director of the ballet company resigned after pornographic photographs of him were circulated on the internet.