Joy in Russia as a Symbol of the Arts Reopens

Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

By Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky
Via The New York Times 

MOSCOW — The interior of the newly restored Bolshoi Theater was resplendent with sable and décolletage and claret-colored damask on Friday, as Russia’s new aristocrats leaned out from their balconies with opera glasses, hoping for a glimpse into the czar’s box, where the president was sitting.

But if you wanted to understand the significance of the event, it was more useful to stand outside, where a few hundred people not lucky enough to get tickets were watching the gala on two large screens. It was a cold, miserable night, and the whole thing was covered live on television, but they stood there anyway, and when columns of ballerinas appeared to the adagio from “Swan Lake,” there were audible sighs of delight.

The reopening of the Bolshoi is freighted with political significance; the six-year restoration has turned the clock back to the late 19th century, replacing thousands of Soviet hammer-and-sickle signs with imperial double-headed eagles. More simply, though, it fills a vacuum in a country besotted by art.

A cleaning woman, Olga Kuznetsova, stood outside the theater in the embrace of her husband, a chauffeur. The two were swaying to the music, and when she heard “Swan Lake” she looked as if she was going to cry.

“I had problems at work today,” she said. “Then I thought — I can go to the Bolshoi.”

The restoration has been dogged by delays, scandals, firings and resignations and huge cost overruns. Two years into the process, officials said they discovered that the oak pilings that made up the building’s foundation had weakened so badly that they had to be removed by hand, in pieces; workers joked that the building was probably being held up by its electrical wiring.

In September, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation for possible embezzlement, saying federal officials had paid one contractor three times for the same work. Russia’s accounting chamber has said the final cost of the project — $760 million, according to the Ministry of Culture — is 16 times the original estimate.

The interior looked glorious on Friday night, a blitzkrieg of crimson and gold leaf. Vera Babich, whose company assisted with the reconstruction, said artisans confined themselves to the oldest of methods. To apply gold to moldings, they first coated the surface with a mixture that included clay, whale grease and rotten egg whites. They then used a brush made from squirrels’ tails to wash the surface with vodka, and then to apply thin leaves of gold. When the gold dried, she said, they used animal teeth to smooth and polish it. Read story at The New York Times

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