MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Bolshoi Theater re-opened Friday with an exclusive party to celebrate a luxurious renovation that has taken six years, cost $700 million and revived a revered cultural symbol scarred by centuries of use and abuse.
Politicians, billionaires, film directors and fashion designers of the Russian elite strolled the red carpet leading up to the cream-colored, eight-columned ballet and opera house that began life as a pet project by Empress Catherine the Great who founded it in 1776, the year the United States was born.
"The Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands so we are all celebrating the opening of the main building of the Bolshoi theater," a black tie-clad President Dmitry Medvedev said on the grand stage.
Medvedev paid tribute to all those involved in restoring luster to a building that has been a physical witness to the rule of tsars, their brutal overthrow in the Bolshevik revolution, two world wars, the rise of the Soviet state, the collapse of communism and Russia's latest resurgence in a capitalist world.
"I would like to thank all those who took part in the rebirth of our miracle, our great national brand - the Bolshoi Theater," he told guests including Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian ballet legend Maya Plisetskaya, seated under a six-meter chandelier.
He then took a seat in a gold-lined box where tsars and Soviet leaders sat for performances.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seeking a return to the presidency in a vote next March, did not attend the performance as he had a prior arrangement with a financial policing body, his spokesman said.
About 100 musicians and opera singers in orange and white hard hats and workmen's overalls took to the stage, where they burst into song performing "Slavsya" by the Russian 19th century composer Mikhail Glinka.
Outside, Kremlin guards clad in charcoal grey wool overcoats encircled a Bolshoi all lit up in blue and gold for the event which Russian art enthusiasts hope will cement Moscow's position as the arbiter of the classics.
"The atmosphere is fantastic, the fact the theater got finished is great," gushed Valentin Yudashkin, one of Russia's top fashion designers.
The theater, which has survived three fires, bombing in World War Two and was at one time perched above an underground river, has been restored to its opulent Tsarist beginnings, covered in gold leaf, and had cutting-edge acoustics added.
After years of neglect and heavy use during Soviet times, the theater was closed in 2005 for restoration. The Bolshoi Ballet troupe continued performing on the neighboring, but smaller New stage.
Friday's opening show will feature top dancers such as Svetlana Zakharova and Maria Alexandrova, as well as guest opera singers including France's Natalie Dessay and Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana.
A totally Russian repertoire was performed including pieces by composers Alexander Borodin, Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.
Elaborate set changes and an electronic backdrop showing black and white animations of the Bolshoi were part of the two-hour gala performance, receiving rapturous applause from the 2,000 guests.
Moscow city center streets were grid-locked after security was beefed up to allow the guests in for a thoroughly Russian evening, which is being broadcast live in Russia, Europe and the United States and live on video website Youtube.
Italian actress Monica Bellucci, swathed in diamonds and dressed in a strapless crimson dress, joined Russian officials as they crowded into the theater, lined with plush red chairs that have been tested for sound-absorption.
Rare pine wood applied to the walls also helps improve the quality of the sound, which has won praise from leading opera singers, and even two of the nearest stations of Moscow's sprawling metro will be soundproofed.
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.
Rigid Soviet-era seats have been replaced in the latest renovation with fewer, wider and more comfortable ones, cutting the number for the main stage to 1,720 from 2,200.
But not everyone was pleased with the grand revamp. The Bolshoi's principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze has repeatedly told local media the old theatre's interior has been replaced with even cheaper material.
Writing By Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Paul Casciato