Boris Godunov, Royal Opera House, London

Tarkovsky's Boris rises from the dead

To anyone who has ever pondered the imponderables of Andrei Tarkovsky's films, his 1983 staging of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov will seem oddly prosaic. The message is clear: this, his nation, was strangled at birth. Nicolas Dvigoubsky's paltry set is a ruin. The great gate at the city limits of Moscow is crudely held together with scaffolding. Figures from this particular page in history process centre-stage down a catwalk-like ramp, while the downtrodden masses clamour from the sidelines. But even 20 years ago, this show (redirected now by Irina Brown) looked and felt like a thing of the past. The time of sorrow was then, Tarkovsky seemed to be saying, and still is now. Now and for ever. Nothing changes.

Well, not Tarkovsky's view of theatre, that's for sure. This is what the Bolshoi or Kirov was doing a century ago (and still is, in some cases). Deliberate, you ask yourself? You wonder why the huge (and excellent) chorus is singing so much upstage in the first two scenes. Is this, perhaps, where Tarkovsky imagined his camera to be? Blocking and gesture come from old stock - outstretched hands, rolling eyes, malevolent looks, jolly guffaws. It's opera by numbers, all right.

A single-set Boris should at least give us the opportunity to honour the "cinematic" fluency of Mussorgsky's narrative and make good his startling juxtapositions from one scene and one location to the next. But Tarkovsky seemed to forget that post-production editing was not an option here. The groaning pauses as we wait for bodies to clear the set drain tension between scenes, and especially in what should be the electrifying transition from Boris's death to the revolution brewing outside Moscow. That's a jump-cut if ever there was one.

And yet the fabric of Mussorgsky's great score is wonderfully well served in this belated revival. The conductor, Semyon Bychkov, gives us the darkening hues, the radical starkness of Mussorgsky's lower string and wind voices; they dig deep into Bychkov's excavation of the score; a good balance is maintained between the epic sprawl and the urgency of history's rush to judgement.

And that all-important vocal colour is equally present in the casting - a succession of eminently Russian voices such as the Kirov's Vladimir Vaneev as Pimen, the hermit chronicler, and Vladimir Matorin's vagabond monk Varlaam, who jointly carry the resonance of a great vocal tradition.

Then, if you are going to do Mussorgsky's final revision with its added "Polish" act (added to pump up the underwritten and hugely significant role of Dmitry the Pretender and to lend some love interest, too), there can be no better justification than the presence of singers of the calibre of Olga Borodina (Marina) and Sergei Leiferkus as the wily, sinister Rangoni. Their scene together is one of the most accomplished and gripping in the entire opera, and one in which old-school melodrama still works wonders. Leiferkus, with sibilance to match his snake-like shaved head and hollow eyes, circles the imperious Borodina like prey, promising heavenly redemption if she will ensnare the Pretender and effect the conversion of Muscovy from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism. The Pretender (Sergei Larin) presented little resistance on this occasion, being voiceless and merely mouthing his responses, while a last-minute replacement, Vladimir Galouzine, sang - splendidly - from the pit.

At the opera's heart, though, is the Boris of John Tomlinson. His authority is immense. So, too, his torment. It's a singularly brilliant touch that has him recoiling in horror at the little peasant boy who crawls forward to touch the hem of his robe at the coronation. In his eyes we see the bloody image of the murdered Tsarevich Dmitry, just as surely as we see his defiance at the moment of death as he struggles to his feet and thunders: "I am still Tsar!" I believed him. I even, for a moment, believed Tarkovsky's ambiguous final image of him: a white, godlike figure looking down on his people - a sea of dead bodies in a heavy snowfall. Cheesy but effective. Fade to black.

To 9 October (0207-304 4000)

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