Moscow's top dance venue remains the Bolshoi, the showcase for several generations of internationally adored ballet stars. The company has at last begun loosening up its long-stale repertoire, though the results are mixed so far, and Tchaikovsky's classics still form its backbone. Besides the impeccable dancing, another major reason to visit the Bolshoi is the sumptuous setting. The 18th-century theater is fronted by a triumphant sculpture of Apollo's chariot topping the eight-columned portico. A blinding abundance of red and gold decorates the interior, inspiring viewers even before the curtain (still embossed with the Soviet hammer and sickle) opens. Its four balconies rise steeply over the orchestra seats and above the velvet-lined czar's box (long referred to as "Stalin's box"). The seats are separate, movable chairs, and the balconies are divided into separate cabins of a few seats each. Most hotels can arrange tickets, but at a hefty markup. The official ticket office is in an adjacent building, with computer screens listing available seats and their prices -- but in Russian only. Lines are not long. Tickets must be purchased at least a week in advance. For the main stage, prices range from 750 to 5,000 rubles, with big draws such as the ever-popular Swan Lake more expensive than others. A smaller, newer stage hosts performances of the same caliber as those on the main stage, but at about half the price. Tickets can also be purchased online before your trip.
Operas at the Bolshoi stick to the classics, such as The Marriage of Figaro, The Barber of Seville, and Carmen, but they may include pleasant Russian works such as Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov is a major draw for Russian audiences, delving into the 16th and 17th centuries, when Russian history was fraught with battles for succession and much shifting of alliances -- but the opera reflects more of the romantic nationalism of the 19th century when Mussorgsky wrote it than the murky turmoil of Godunov's era. Hearing opera at the Bolshoi is just part of the experience; viewing the grandiose theater is the other half, once it reopens after renovations. Operas are staged at least once or twice a week.
Note: The Bolshoi is currently undergoing extensive, much-needed renovations that will expand it two-fold, adding a 26-meter deep second stage underground. The main stage shut down in 2005, and full renovations are expected to take a few years (2011 is the target year for completion of renovations). The second stage remains open, hosting the main company and all the same performances.