Moscow's Bolshoi ("grand") Theater became a kind of national theater and showcase for Russian opera and ballet in the Soviet period. The original Bolshoi Theater opened in 1825, although historians trace the theater's lineage through a series of private theaters operating in Moscow as early as 1776. The Bolshoi Theater stands on the site of the last of
these, which burned in 1805. The drama, opera, and ballet troupes of these older, private Moscow theaters were combined to create the Moscow Imperial Theaters the following year. One year after the drama troupe moved to a new home (the Maly ["small"] Theater) in 1824, the opera and ballet troupes took up residence in the newly constructed Bolshoi Theater. That theater burned in 1853. The present theater opened three years later, retaining the old name.
Moscow's Bolshoi Theater functioned as a poor relation to the better-funded, national stage of St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater until the Soviet era. Italian and Russian opera troupes coexisted in the rebuilt house in the nineteenth century, though Russian opera held a distinctly second place, and the theater witnessed few noteworthy premieres of Russian operas. The ballet repertory likewise consisted mostly of restaged works from the repertory of the St. Petersburg ballet. Marius Petipa's 1869 Don Quixote furnishes the rare exception. When Peter Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake debuted in the Bolshoi Theater in 1877, it was considered a flop (and was reworked in St. Petersburg in 1894 and 1895). The opera's fortunes rose slightly when Sergei Rachmaninoff became its chief conductor from 1904 to 1906. Rachmaninoff debuted two of his own operas in the theater, which then featured such outstanding singers as Fyodor Chalyapin, Leonid Sobinov, and Antonina Nezhdanova.
The Bolshoi Theater became a showcase of Soviet operatic and balletic talent in the Stalin era. Dancers and choreographers from St. Petersburg were transferred to Moscow, much as the repertory had once been. A highly dramatic, athletic style evolved in the ballet in the post–World War II period, as the ballet school began to produce home-grown stars. Dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev achieved worldwide renown touring the world in new vehicles in the years of the post-Stalin Thaw, though the company's balletmasters and repertory continued to be imported from Leningrad. The opera followed a similar strategy, mostly restaging works that had premiered successfully elsewhere. None of the operas of Dmitri Shostakovich or Sergei Prokofiev had their premieres in the Bolshoi, for example. Instead, the opera specialized in monumental productions of the nineteenth-century Russian repertory, though singers such as Galina Vishnevskaya, Irina Arkhipova, Elena Obraztsova, and Vladimir Atlantov established international careers in them.
The prestige of both the Bolshoi's opera and ballet fell precipitously in the first post-Soviet decade. The era of glasnost revealed that productions, performers, and the theater's management were out of step with the theatrical mainstream of Europe and North America as once-generous state subsidies dwindled. As the theater approached artistic and financial bankruptcy, the Bolshoi ceded its place as a national institution to the more western-oriented Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.
See also: ballet; diagilev, sergei pavlovich; nijinsky, vaslav fomich; opera; pavlova, anna matveyevna; rachmaninov, sergei vasilievich; theater
Pokrovsky, Boris, and Grigorovich, Yuri. (1979). The Bolshoi, tr. Daryl Hislop. New York: Morrow.
Roslavleva, Natalia. (1966). Era of the Russian Ballet. London: Da Capo.
Swift, Mary Grace. (1968). The Art of the Dance in the U.S.S.R. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.