Good enough

Opera

Boris Godunov trundles through the crowds at his coronation on a tricycle rickshaw. He strikes bold, rhetorical poses a la Lenin, then crumples under the weight of a private guilt when no one's looking. He had the heir to the throne murdered. By the end of the opera they'll be fitting out his Tsarmobile for another Tsar altogether.

The Boyars don't come out of Boris Godunov fantastic-ally. But tidings in Russia's greatest historical opera are especially bad for the Russian people. Mussorgsky was on the people's side but was dry-eyed about them. They were "one great being, inspired by one idea", he said, and they were stupid. They forgot, with each new Tsar Boris, that their life never improved. Not even the soul of Russia, the Holy Fool, is altogether holy in Mussorgsky's tearless vision. At the London Coliseum the Fool sits on a tennis umpire's chair. He sees everything. But comes to the aid of no one.

A framed, Bacon-inspired backdrop of existentialist furniture leads the eye into empty palatial distances. The Tsar's daughter is an image of stuntedness in toe-length satin that Velazquez would have been proud of. A monk's cell spins to reveal its flip side, a den of vice on the Lithuanian border. Snaking lines of grey-suited Boyars knock against serpents of Russian pilgrims to provide emblems of beauty and meaning. The collusion between direction and design - Francesca Zambello and Hildegard Bechtler - is outstanding.

But crowds always pose a problem. Zambello has directed a lot of Russian operas, so has done her throng apprenticeship the hard way, but she has not altogether cracked it. Women taunt men with pelvic thrusts and look theatrically vulgar; peasants tramp with sticks and seem peasants being operatic with sticks. There are basic failings: the Fool tells the Tsar he is a Tsar-Herod and the crowd covers its face in shock before, not after, he has said his piece. Hordes rush, shadows sprout from walls, but the orchestral avalanche happening below is not allowed to speak.

ENO goes for the original seven-scene Boris "plus elements of Mussorgsky's later revisions": a conflation of two respectable versions. Thus we get the lady innkeeper being rogered, routinely up and down, by a roistering customer; we get her saucy "song of drake" about the birds and the bees, while the dramatic flow is arrested. But we get, too, an ideological problem at the heart of the piece. In Mussorgsky I the driving force of history is conscience. In Mussorgsky II it is the people. At ENO, it is an even-handed, indecisive, Blairish mix of the two.

Liberality with the composer's intentions has not been extended to his score. The cult of authenticity makes use of Rimsky-Korsakov's or Shostakovich's orchestrations of the opera unthinkable, and Mussorgsky's orchestral work is in any case one of opera's most remarkable. The washes of orthodox bells, the gongs, the tubas: they create, along with the composer's oblique harmonic and melodic daring, an incomparably strange, haunting, thrilling orchestral sound world. The tragic, lugubrious double-bass sonorities of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique are not as unique as we think.

The performances? Boris - John Tomlinson - jabbers with the authority and dramatic force of the finest bass on the British stage. Robert Tear is a sarcastic, not a devilish Prince, but approaches better than anyone Mussorgsky's ideal of reproducing in musical sounds "the mood of human speech". John Daszak's transformation from humble monk to power-hungry Pretender is beautifully achieved. Paul Daniel's conducting is thrilling if unforgiving. And history repeats itself at the end. ENO's Boris is good news for opera-goers, bad news for Tsars.

"Boris Godunov" continues at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 until 11 December. Call 0171-632 8300 for details and dates of performances

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie