MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre will reopen after restoration in November 2009, a year behind schedule, after emergency work to save it from collapse, officials said on Thursday.
The historic opera and ballet theatre closed in July 2005, its facade crumbling, its walls and columns pitted by 17 vertical cracks, and its foundations shifting dangerously.
The restoration was initially due to cost 15 billion roubles ($610 million) and finish later this year. But last year engineers found the structure was more than 75 percent unstable and pushed back opening night indefinitely.
"We are now planning to open on November 1, 2009 with opera 'Ruslan and Lyudmila'," Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of Russia's federal cultural agency, told journalists, standing in a muddy, roofless space that was once the main stage.
More than 1,000 workers have toiled around the clock to put in steel and concrete pilings to steady the nearly 200-year-old walls, Shvydkoi said, adding that Italy's La Scala orchestra and choir were also scheduled to perform in November 2009.
"Until then, it's build, build, build!"
Founded in 1776 by a decree of the empress Catherine the Great, the Bolshoi has been in its current building since 1825.
Shvydkoi, who toured the construction site with head contractor Azari Lapidus, said the reconstruction of the main theatre building alone would now cost 18 billion roubles ($730 million), all of it to come from the federal government.
"This is not a new construction. This is a historic building with enormous construction difficulties," Shvydkoi said, pointing to the exposed steel beams and shouting to be heard over the sounds of excavators and welding.
"It costs as much just to restore here as did to build a new opera theatre in Finland."
Lapidus said more than 2,000 concrete and steel pilings reaching 26 meters deep now shored up the perimeter walls, and after 10 weeks with no observed shifting in the foundations, the restoration could continue.
"Today we can tell journalists that we have crossed the equator, and those cracks that almost destroyed the theatre no longer scare us," Lapidus said.
The Bolshoi's rehearsal halls, offices, on-site clinic and store rooms will also be overhauled, Lapidus said, adding that he hoped to turn over a ballet studio above the main stage to the dancers next March.
Russian tsars, Soviet leaders and lovers of music and dance from all over the world have visited the Bolshoi down the years.
Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake premiered there in 1877, and ballerinas such as Nina Ananiashvili, Maya Plisetskaya and Galina Ulanova have all performed on the main stage.
(Writing by Chris Baldwin, editing by Kevin Liffey)