Count Sheremetev’s Theater of Wood and Light
The unique Ostankino Theater Palace in northern Moscow comes to life.
By Michele A. Berdy
Once upon a time there lived a Russian count named Nikolai Petrovich Sheremetev, who possessed a passion for the theatrical arts, extraordinarily refined taste, and enough money to indulge both. He trained and supported a unique troupe of serf actors and singers, who performed in the family home on Nikolskaya Street in Moscow and their estate of Kuskovo. When his father died and he became heir to the family fortune, Sheremetev decided to rebuild one of their properties, the Ostankino estate, as a magnificent Theater Palace. He envisioned a lush realm where guests would be both spectators and actors, and where the entire estate – parks, pond and palace – would be a stage for grandiose evenings of entertainment. The palace would be designed around a theater – a kind of stage within a stage – that would be fitted with the latest mechanical wonders. And where his favorite actress, Praskovia Kovaleva-Zhemchugova, the daughter of a serf smithy and later (to the horror of high society, one must assume) his wife and countess, would have a stage befitting her talent.
The Theater Palace, built from 1793 to 1797 and used for a mere four years, was meant for summer pleasures. The entire building is made of wood – which has made upkeep a nightmare for the dedicated museum staff (and also makes it the one place in Moscow where smoking – even on the grounds – is strictly forbidden). It was – and is – a marvel of luxury and theatricality. It is also one of the very few Russian palaces that has come down to our days intact, with the original floors, wall coverings, furniture, paintings and enormous collection of rare and beautiful household articles.
Where: 5 1-ya Ostankinskaya ul. Metro VDNKh, and then trams 11 or 17. By car from the center: take Sheremetevskaya ul. north, over the overpass until ul. Koroleva. Turn left (at the arrow) and then take the first right. The museum is two blocks on the left.
When and how much: The museum is open May 18 to September 30, 10am-6pm, Wednesday through Sunday. From 10am-3pm you can arrange for a tour; from 3:30-6pm, you can tour the museum yourself (tours run until 1pm on Sundays). The museum is closed when it rains or when the humidity is especially high (in order to preserve the structure and collection). For Russians the entrance fee (without a tour) is 30 rubles, 20 for children; for foreigners it is 40 rubles. A tour costs 60 rubles for Russians (30 for children) and 80 rubles for foreigners. Group tours of up to 20 people can also be arranged. Check newspapers for the concert schedule. An ideal day would be a tour of the palace, a stroll in the magnificent gardens, and then a concert.
Language factor: The tours and pre-concert introductions are in Russian; sometimes it’s possible to arrange for a translator, but if you want a foreign-language tour, it’s better to bring your own interpreter. However, all the rooms have English-language descriptions set on stands.
Kid factor: Since everything in the museum is the “real thing,” you’ll have to watch small children to make sure they don’t wander too close to the original 18th century sculptures. Older children with an interest in theater or lavish lifestyles of times gone by should like it.
Many of the elements of decor are “decorations”: not marble columns, but wooden stage pillars cleverly covered with marble dust and painted to be indistinguishable from real stone. In the renovated Italian Pavilion (most of the museum is either under or awaiting repair) the Count’s guests would gather before the evening’s opera or concert. Small nooks with couches and sculptures allowed them to step out of the crowd for some gossip, intrigue or romance. That’s if they could take their eyes off the ceilings: decorated with panels of French fabric in brilliant designs of peacock blue, yellow and red, or off the floor, inset with rare woods.
The Italian Pavilion opens into an equally lush hall, also with nooks for quiet conversation, that leads to the theater. The theater is the only remaining “palace” theater in Russia dating from the 18th century, and one of a dozen in Europe. It has a deep (22 meters) and wide (17 meters) stage that opens to a circular seating area, ringed by a balcony. Gadget and ingenuity nuts will be in heaven. The enormous columns could be lifted and moved around the stage to change scenes; wooden machines made the sounds of wind, thunder and rain (the last by tossing dried peas down a shoot lined with curved metal blades). The wooden structure and design produced extraordinary acoustics. If you are lucky to get tickets to one of the Sheremetev Season concerts held in the theater, be sure to sit still; the zipper of a purse opening sounds like a low-flying plane. But if you sit in silence, you can hear every pluck of the lute and the softest whisper of the singer. It is a magical experience.
Although the chairs now rise up from stage level, originally the seating area was about a meter and a half lower than the stage. For the performances it was fitted with bleacher-like seats covered with thick cushions. After the guests moved to the next hall, the bleachers were removed and flooring was laid at the level of the stage. In 40 minutes the theater was transformed into a ballroom.
The tour ends with a small but fascinating exhibition of some of the museum’s collection of household items and lighting fixtures. Even if you’ve never given much thought to lights before, you will be captivated: candle holders set against mirrors to light the stage, airy chandeliers that look like a cascade of rain drops, chimney-like candle sconces, an enormous chandelier in the theater that rises into the ceiling, “fire work” candelabras hung with quartz and amethyst that made table light dazzle and dance.
For Count Sheremetev, illumination was part of the theatrical experience of his evenings. Guests described entering the drive lined with little lights, up to the palace where every window was lit and reflected on the pond. Enormous gold floor lamps were moved about to create nooks of soft lighting. Tables danced with lights that were reflected in mirrors, giving them endless dimensions. After the theater performance, dinner and dancing, fireworks were set off in the gardens behind the palace.
Today, alas, no candles or fireworks are permitted near this rare and fragile palace. But with a bit of imagination…