February 6, 2024

1943. "Proletarian Opera Is Staged With Czars' Pomp and Show"

The Reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre
"Portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin hang on the front of the Bolshoi Theatre in Soviet times" (source)

From Newsweek, October 11, 1943, pp. 34-36 (originally from a report by Bill Downs in September 1943):

Moscow First Night

Proletarian Opera Is Staged With Czars' Pomp and Show

What was probably the most brilliant social event since the start of the war took place in Moscow last week—the reopening of the Bolshoi Theater, which had been damaged by German bombs. Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS correspondent, attended and sent this account of what a first night looks like in a Communist country.

Although I expected to see something extra special at this opening, I was startled to observe what a dressing-up had been achieved. The theater has an exceptionally large stage. The parterre and loges have been completely recarpeted, and all the seats have been done in brand-new red plush. Designed inside in European style, six tiers of balconies run entirely around three sides. The front of these balconies displays shining gilt. The ceiling has been done in light blue and decorated with gigantic figures of the nine muses—all of them plump, Russian-looking women, who are a little bit incongruous and give a strip-tease effect to the roof.

The Russians like perfume—men use eau de cologne extensively in barbershops. The soft lights, red plush, glowing gilt, and perfume gave the setting a nineteenth-century atmosphere. It was nineteenth century until I looked at the new Bolshoi curtain printed in a red and gold design. The most prominent features are various dates of the development of the socialist state—1871, Paris Communes; 1905, First Revolution; 1917, October Revolution.

Next to the stage on each side are the former royal boxes, in which the family of the Czar used to sit before the revolution. These boxes are now reserved for the highest Soviet officials.

Throughout the performance of Glinka's "Ivan Sussanin" the audience looked constantly at one of the boxes, which was empty, and it was amusing, looking through opera glasses at the opening chorus number, to see 100 men and women singing the stirring opening number and constantly rolling their eyes to make sure that Stalin was not there. There had been rumors—as there always are at such events—that the supreme commander-in-chief might attend. However, he didn't show up.

"Ivan Sussanin" was originally called "A Life for the Czar," but the title was changed several years ago. The lead was sung by Mamilhailoff, whose tremendous bass voice sounds as if it comes out of the bottom of a barrel. Many critics consider that he is the best Russian basso since Chaliapin. He's hampered by the fact that he just can't act.

The other star performer was the current darling of Moscow ballet, Olga Lepeshinskaya. She got the biggest hand of the evening dancing a brief ballet number in the brilliant second act, where it is easy to see how Russia got its great tradition for this type of dancing.

During the first intermission reporters went in search of diplomats to find out who was attending. The diplomats did not prove difficult to find. They left a trail of their personal police which led to a private reception room where the theater had laid out a buffet supper. There is nothing quite so complete as Russian hospitality.

However, the high spot of the opening for the audience was in the men's smoking room. I was walking past there when I heard someone say: "Peevo." Several others took up the cry. I followed, and sure enough there were bottles and bottles of peevo—beer to you.

It was the first time I had seen it on public sale since I had been here. The Bolshoi opening was truly a success.