If there is an architect whose career has been marked by one building, it is Leri Medzmariashvili. When Tbilisi’s Opera Theatre burned down into ashes on May 9, 1973, the architect won the competition to rebuild the iconic building in the heart of Georgia’s capital. He was 38.
“It was almost all gone,” he recalls, beaming around the splendid amphitheatre dominated by the ravishing Austrian crystal chandelier of 2.5 tonnes and 800 bulbs. “The façade, the stalls, up to the stage, we had to rebuild it all.” And so he did, with his lifelong friend and colleague Murtaz Chachanidze. In 1977 the theatre reopened, bigger, higher, and grander.
Almost four decades on, Medzmariashvili, now 81, returned to redirect the renovation of the neo-Moorish 120-year old building. It finally reopened in January after a six-year, multi-million refit funded by the Cartu Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Cartu Bank, controlled by former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
“Re-opening the theatre is not simply reopening a building, it means a new chapter for our centuries-old performing art tradition,” explains Davit Kintsurashvili, the 37-year-old artistic director of the theatre, who returned to Tbilisi to take up the post in 2013 after more than a decade spent in Germany as a orchestra conductor. “This is a standing symbol of our culture. Music, dance, theatre are in our dna.”
Kintsurashvili works along side Nina Ananishvili, former étoile at the Bolshoi and the American Ballet Theatre, named one of the finest ballerinas of all time, who has been leading the Opera’s State Ballet since 2004.
The vicissitudes of the Opera Theatre are closely intertwined with Georgia’s troubled history. In 1847 the Russian viceroy of the Caucasus decided to build the theatre to tame the Georgian aristocracy by luring it into imperial social life. The subtle bribe worked: in 1851 the Opera opened, winning Georgians’ hearts and minds. Since then the Opera has survived two fires – following the first in 1874 the theatre reopened in its current location in 1896 – Soviet rule, social unrest, and a chronic shortage of money. Passion though, never failed.
“The 1990s were dark years, literally. There was no electricity, no heating, tickets were so low there was no cash, the Opera ran on pure dedication,” recollects Medzmariashvili who has designed other theatres in Tbilisi such as the Griboev and the Kakhidze Musical Hall. “At times there were 10 people in the audience and many more fighting outside. Zurab Lomidze, the then director, did the outmost to keep the opera alive, a symbol of hope while everything else was falling apart.”
International standard, national talents
At the turn of the 20th century the opera house hosted the likes of Isadora Duncan and Sofia Fedorova, and Mikhail Fokin staged his first innovatory ballets, that then brought him the recognition in Paris, on the Diaghilev Seasons.
Tbilisi then became one of USSR’s leading cultural centres after Moscow and Saint Petersburg and it nurtured talents who, once the Iron Curtain fell, have embarked on glittering careers abroad. Beyond Ananishvili, dancers have shined internationally, such as Maia Makhateli, currently principal dancer at the Dutch National Ballet. In 2015 three Georgian sopranos featured in the production of Carmen at La Scala in Milan – Sofia Mchedishvili, Anita Rachvelishvili, and Nino Machaidze – while baritone Lado Ataneli, who sang in Zakaria Paliashvili’s Abesalom and Eteri at the opening premiere, is regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Verdi’s and Puccini’s arias.
“We need to keep on nurturing Georgians’ gift for music and dance,” explains Kintsurashvili in his studio surrounded by fine sculptures, sheet music and an exquisite piano. His vision is to maintain the opera house in line with the highest modern international standards, while supporting Georgian composers – Eka Chabashvili and Maka Virsaladze, women artists in their 40s, and Nodar Mamisashvili to name a few.
The renovation was very much needed to maintain the quality artistic directors are used to, and to keep Tbilisi on the opera and ballet international map. It didn’t come cheaply, nor quickly. Despite support from international specialised companies such as German Gerriets and Salzbrenner, the €36mn works were almost entirely paid by Ivanishvili, Georgia’s wealthiest man (his estimated fortune in 2015 was €4.6bn), and dragged on for six years.
“Assets of the Cartu Foundation were frozen for a while ahead of the 2012 elections and for about a year there was no cash inflow to pay the bills. Inevitably that slowed down the pace of the renovation,” explains Medzmariashvili.
Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, which gained power in October 2012, served a short tenure as prime minister and retired from public life at the end of 2013 but is still widely regarded as Georgian politics’ grey cardinal. As the country is heading to the ballot in October critics have questioned the timing of the reopening of the opera house after works dragged on for six years.
Now back to its former lustre, with additional technical stage devices in line with the world’s most famous opera theatres, the building is buzzling with renewed optimism that is palpable backstage, in the rehearsal rooms and beyond its walls.
On the premiere night, Romari, a pensioner and opera lover in his 60s, sat on a bench in the garden by the theatre, wrapped in a stars-and-stripes scarf. He was among the dozens of Tbilisians who gathered outside the Opera House and, eyes closed, he abandoned himself to the arias played through loudspeakers. “The music is back,” he said.