The imposing marble edifice of the Bolshoi Theater stands as one of Moscow’s more visual reminders of the distinction between the city’s old and new elite.
Currently home to one of the world’s most renowned ballet companies, the Bolshoi was once synonymous with the Russian elite. In fact, the name “bolshoi” – Russian for “grand” – derived from the imperial tradition of having only two types of theaters: ones for operas and ballets, and ones for dramas and comedies.
These bolshoi theaters were generally regarded as being the peak of sophistication and were found in other Russian cities, such as St Petersburg as well. Still, that “grand” perception was especially true at the inaugural performance at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow on January 18, 1825. Works by such Russian greats as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich have premiered on the Bolshoi stage.
The Bolshoi has since become a staple of life in Moscow, so much so that a restoration of the massive theater was unveiled in 2011. After six years of work and a rumored $1 billion in cost, new life has been breathed into the Bolshoi from the inside out. Yet the opulent ballets and lavish operas that once drew the likes of Russia’s aristocracy are not necessarily having the same sway over the country’s novi russki, many of whom prefer the city’s decadent nightspots to the grand old dame of Russian cultural life.
The second biggest opera house in Europe after La Scala in Milan, performances attract a similar mix of regulars and visitors there for the spectacle alone. “For a first visit, I’d recommend the ballet company, the world’s best,” says my Russian friend Galina. “But opera is also an amazing spectacle in such a theater. The New Stage is cheaper, and the performances just as good, but of course you are not in the original auditorium.” Tickets, which can be booked online, sell out months in advance. To see the building itself, there are regular tours, although you have to stand in line early in the morning to get a place.
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