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Wednesday 19 September 2018

Big and Bolshoi...

Kick off: a light show at the Bolshoi Theatre marks start of World Cup
Kick off: a light show at the Bolshoi Theatre marks start of World Cup

George Hamilton

To western ears, Bolshoi means ballet. In Russian, bolshoi means big. "Spasibo bolshoi" they'll say, when many thanks are due.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, they named one of the venues the Bolshoi Ice Dome, to reflect not only its size, but also its status as the home to the most popular sport at the Games. I never realised ice hockey was so huge.

The host city itself gets in on the act. Sochi is but a small part of a sprawl of almost 100 miles along the coastline that's known to the locals as Sochi Bolshoi.

The Fisht stadium in Sochi - named after a nearby peak in the Caucasus - yesterday staged the first of its six matches in football's World Cup.

But the main focus is on Moscow, where the tournament kicked off on Thursday and where the final will take place four weeks from tomorrow.

Hosting 12 fixtures in all, Moscow is this World Cup's "bolshoi". And Russia's biggest cultural venue is here too.

With two hats to wear, I delight in visits to opera houses and concert halls as much as I enjoy the great cathedrals of sport I'm lucky enough to call my workspace.

Alongside San Siro and La Scala, I'm delighted to say there is a tick beside the Bolshoi.

I crammed into a box alongside my RTÉ team mates for a performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet on the fringes of the 1980 Olympics (we also took in the Moscow State Circus).

The theatre is as big a draw as ever it was. It has a spot absolutely at the heart of its home. Like La Scala, which sits just an arcade away from the central square in front of the Duomo that is Milan's beating heart, the Bolshoi is what you come to next as you leave Red Square behind you.

It certainly looks the part, dominating the space around it with its portico defining the neoclassical façade.

The Bolshoi can trace its roots to the 1770s. St Petersburg was the imperial capital then, so the theatre began as a private enterprise.

A Russian prince was behind it, but it was an English impresario - Michael Maddox - who provided the business nous.

Despite a successful launch, and a period of steady development, it lunged into turbulent waters. Finances were drained, then the building burned down.

And that's where the name came in. Because the phoenix that rose from the ashes was much bigger than what had gone before, it was given the moniker "Bolshoi".

Thirty years later, it burned down again. Undaunted, Moscow set about creating an even better venue. The new Bolshoi they built was even bigger than what had gone before.

Completed to be ready for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II, it was now part of the fabric of the Empire.

The main feature of the new 2,300-seater auditorium was the royal box, which was positioned directly facing the stage.

Things changed, obviously, after the October revolution in 1917, but the new Soviet state clearly retained a soft spot for the impressive venue.

In fact, the creation of the USSR was proclaimed from the stage of the Bolshoi. It was there, too, that the passing of its first leader, Vladimir Lenin, was announced.

It has remained central to cultural life in Russia, despite tribulations that have dogged it over the years.

It was damaged in a German bombing raid during World War II. Six decades later, it had fallen into a state of such disrepair that it had to be closed again.

But somehow, it keeps coming back stronger. Restored to its former glory, it boasts, among other things, one of the world's biggest orchestra pits, with room for 130 musicians. Bolshoi indeed.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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