For the first time in six years, the strains of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev rang out from the orchestra pit at the Bolshoi last night, as Russia's most famous theatre reopened after a six-year closure.
Russia's political and cultural elite packed the vast auditorium to celebrate the theatre's rebirth, which has come after a lengthy and controversially expensive set of renovations.
The lavish opening concert began with the Bolshoi's choir and much of its orchestra dressed as construction workers. Orange lorries drove across the stage in a homage to the huge reconstruction effort that has gone on over the past six years. Later, the theatre's opera and ballet troupes, as well as a number of invited international stars, performed excerpts from some of the Bolshoi's most famous shows, including Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and Prokofiev's Cinderella.
“Our country is of course very big, but the number of national brands that unite us all are few,” said President Dmitry Medvedev from the stage, before the concert began. “The Bolshoi is one of the greatest of them all.” After his speech, the Russian President took his place in the imperial box, where Russia's Tsars sat in years gone by. Invitations to the special gala concert were like gold dust, handed out by the Kremlin to a hand-picked group of politicians and musicians. In addition to most of the current Russian government, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was in attendance. Legends of the Bolshoi's past, such as the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya were also present.
Thousands of workers were involved in the wide-ranging reconstruction, which has involved everything from relaying the theatre's foundations to embroidering tiny details onto curtain fabrics. Almost all the additions of the Soviet period have been removed, and the theatre has been returned to its Tsarist-era splendour. The main auditorium has six balconies, all shimmering with ornate gold leaf, while the reception areas are done out with rich velvet wall coverings and ornate chandeliers.
The work has not gone entirely smoothly, however. The total cost of renovations is believed to be around £500m, mainly paid for by Russian taxpayers, and an investigation has been opened into the misappropriation of funds during the repairs, which dragged on for much longer than initially planned. There has also been uproar over the inaccessibility of tickets to the theatre, with complaints that all the cheap seats are bought up by touts and resold at a huge markup. There were even reports that earlier this week, touts had paid tramps to wait in line and buy up tickets for them.
The first public performances at the Bolshoi are next week, when a new production of Mikhail Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila opens the season. Top price tickets are 3000 roubles (£60) but they are already being sold on by touts for £250 outside the theatre. “The touts are a problem, but we don't know how to fight them,” Anatoly Iksanov, the Bolshoi's General Director, admitted earlier this week.