Scars of the 20th Century uncovered by opera house revamp

  • 2005-08-10
  • By Steve Roman
TALLINN - It was a view of the interior, stripped down nearly to its naked skeleton, which hadn't been seen since the mid-1940s. It was also a glimpse, however tiny, into the troubled past shared by both the building and the nation as a whole.

"You can show the preserved pieces and fragments of original finishing but never the real misery and smell of history," Toivo Erilt, the administrative manager responsible for the house's building and renovation told The Baltic Times.

History is certainly something this building doesn't lack. When it was first completed in 1913, the "Estonia" theater company's grand house stood as a proud symbol of the nation's emerging culture. Officially called the Estonian Theater and Concert House "Estonia" (to this day it's usually referred to simply as the "Estonia"), the structure was made up of a theater annex, a concert hall annex and a connecting central area that housed a casino and restaurants.

Tragically, the "Estonia" was gutted during the March 9, 1944 Soviet air raid that devastated much of Tallinn. Realizing the building's symbolic importance, the Soviets were quick to rebuild, and by the 30th anniversary of the October Revolution in 1947, both the theater and concert wings were operating again.

Hasty building work and a less-than-optimal design, not to mention the use of German POWs and army troops for cheap construction labor, caused problems over the years. By the late 1990s, the roof was broken and warped and bearing structures were in critical condition. Bad acoustics, lack of backstage facilities and public areas that hadn't been remodelled in 20 years added to the scars that plagued the "Estonia."

The current top-to-bottom reconstruction work, which has been going on in phases since 1997, aims to bring the building into the 21st Century. But because this is an architectural monument, restoration should also return the theater as much as possible to its original 1913 Finnish design. New stage facilities, increased floor space and reworked audience seating are all set to be completed by the Dec. 15 re-opening of the house which will be celebrated with a performance of Puccini's "Tosca."

As motivated as the renovators are to recreate this lost bit of Estonian history, it's been the unexpected finds during reconstruction that have really provided the link to those bygone decades. Remnants of the pre-war structure, including fragments of the original floors in the public wardrobe and imitation marble on some inner columns, have been among the surprises. Most striking of all, however, have been what Erilt called the "traces of war."

"You can never forget the specific smell of fire, the smell that was conserved for 61 years in the theater hall's floor between two concrete slabs," he explained.

An issue that inevitably arose during this project was what to do with Soviet elements that were incorporated into the structure, specifically an enormous, round painting on the ceiling of the theater hall. Though it's clearly propaganda, it's also considered an art treasure. Estonian regulations say that if a historic element isn't offensive, it should be preserved. "Somebody can say that the red flag or Soviet soldiers on the fresco of the theater hall is irritating," said Erilt. But as someone who respects this building's heritage, he would never remove it. "There is no doubt that all the interior is a completed document of Estonian history. And the hall is poorer without this history."