By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Bolshoi Theater reopens on Friday with a star-studded gala performance after a more than six-year, $700-million restoration dogged by delays and financial scandal to reclaim its place as one of the world's cultural jewels.
The theater, which has survived three fires, a World War Two bombing and at one time was perched over an underground river, has been restored to its opulent Tsarist beginnings, doused in gold leaf, while embracing the new with cutting edge acoustics.
In what has been billed as a thoroughly Russian evening of music and dance, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will preside over a show that will be broadcast live in Russia, Europe and the United States.
"This will be a truly national celebration," Anatoly Iksanov, the Bolshoi's general director, told a news conference. He said foreign guests were likely to include German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Full details of the show are being kept secret but it will feature the top Bolshoi dancers such as Svetlana Zakharova and Maria Alexandrova, as well as guest opera singers including Frances' Natalie Dessay and Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana.
Founded as a private theater in 1776 by Empress Catherine the Great to "decorate the city and also serve as the premises for public masquerades, comedies and comic operas," the theater was rebuilt in 1825 after a fire.
After years of neglect and heavy use during Soviet times, the grand cream-colored, eight-columned building close to Red Square and the Kremlin closed for repairs in 2005. The troupe continued performing on the neighboring New stage.
"By the time we closed the theater for renovation, there was a 70 percent chance of the building collapsing. That is very high. We had reached a critical point," Iksanov said.
With just days to go, workers in blue overalls are still putting the finishing touches to the theater as rehearsals continue, with opera music competing with the sound of backstage drilling.
"The troupes are working without weekends, production staff are on 24 hours a day and nobody grumbles. We all have a common drive, and that is to get back to our home," Iksanov said.
Iksanov put the reconstruction costs at about $700 million although infrastructure analysts and construction companies have put the sum at almost twice that, embarrassing Russia's cultural authorities who said endemic corruption had reached the stage.
A criminal investigation was opened in September 2009 into the high expenditure and allegations of misuse of funds, but Iksanov has denied any wrongdoing by the Bolshoi.
SCRAMBLE FOR TICKETS
The Bolshoi had world-class acoustics before the Communist era, when sound-reflecting gold was scraped off and stolen and the hollow cylinder underneath the orchestra, thought to be impractical, was filled with cement.
"This pushed the theater below 50th position in the world opera house rankings. Now we've returned the theater its original 19th century acoustics," said Mikhail Sidorov, a spokesperson for Summa, the company in charge of the renovation since 2009.
The chairs are covered with a red Italian fabric that has been tested for sound-absorption and gold leaf has been placed on carved moldings. A rare pine on the walls also helps improve the quality of the sound, which has won praise from leading opera singers.
Even two of the nearest stations of Moscow's sprawling metro will be soundproofed.
"I have no problem with the sound here ... although rehearsing to the constant drilling sound makes it difficult," said Albina Shagimuratova of the Houston Grand opera, struggling to be heard above the drilling.
She will be playing the main role in Ruslan and Ludmila, the opera by Russian composer Mikhail Glinka which will open on the Bolshoi's revamped historical stage on November 2.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty then has its premiere on November 18. Squeezed between will be a single performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem by Italy's La Scala, the first foreign guests to perform on the main stage.
American Ballet Theatre's David Hallberg has also joined the Bolshoi, though also continuing to perform with the New York-based company.
Tickets for the La Scala performance have reached 12,000 roubles ($390) at the official box office, an unusually high price in Russia, signaling the huge interest in the re-opening of one of the world's great theatres.
"We normally sell tickets in the stalls for 3,000 roubles ($98). But it's a market economy, and demand dictates the price," Iksanov said.
(Writing By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, editing by Elizabeth Piper)