Kirov Opera: Boris Godunov, Royal Opera House, London

Timeless, yet stuck in the past
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The Independent Culture

We may rejoice in the additions of his revision, we may wallow in the sumptuousness of the famous Rimsky-Korsakov reconstruction, but once heard, the seven-scene original - played without intermission - is the most powerful realisation of what this piece has always been about: the bitter legacy that shapes a great nation's future.

That Valery Gergiev, the music director of Russia's premier opera company, has publicly come to acknowledge that, and that he and his Kirov company should travel the world proclaiming it, is important. But to do so in a staging as poorly conceived and badly executed as this is a sad indictment of what this company has become since the heyday of Gergiev's appointment as director of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1996.

The "conception" is credited to a collaboration between Gergiev and the designer George Tsypin, and one can see the potential in it. Essentially, they have attempted to render the piece non-time-specific, to use young contemporary singers for the leading roles and deliberately not to age them or dress them in accordance with historical correctness. "Now that I am old," sings the monk and chronicler Pimen. But he clearly isn't. Indeed, he looks, as he should, like Boris's counterpart - the tormented Tsar's alter ego, his conscience.

Symbolism abounds. Contemporary clothes are discreetly mixed in with those of the period; traditional images, such as those of the oppressive Boyars, are grotesquely parodied; the opera opens with the Russian people literally on the rack, stretched en masse between roped winches that confine and control them; the reluctant Boris appears at his coronation encased in a robe that is, in effect, a cage; and most significant (and ludicrous) of all, orthodox headgear moulded into huge fibreglass lanterns descends from above or is spookily perambulated into position as if an alien invasion from some feeble, sci-fi, B-movie from the Fifties. Boris in space. We know the man had hallucinations, but really... Perhaps I shouldn't reveal that in the moment of his death one of these apparitions sprouts silver hairy legs and mutates into a giant spider.

And yet it isn't so much the imagery per se that is offensive, but the tacky look and feel of it. Third rate. And this second performance was a technical shambles, 20 minutes late in starting and riddled with hitches. It's not as if the production is brand new; it is three years old.

Worse still, there is absolutely no point in Gergiev and his company looking towards a more provocative future if the manner and style of its performers remains marooned in the past. You can always gauge the attitude of a company by how much of the ham they take through into the curtain calls. Kirov curtain calls are full of jokily amateurish self-congratulation.

But a more serious question would be: what on earth has happened to the succession of great voices the company was once able to roll out at the drop of a hat? By the Kirov standards of yesteryear, this was shockingly undersung. Only two singers really stood out: Mikhail Kit's Pimen and Evgeny Nikitin's Boris. When the latter rallied in his final moments to proclaim: "I am still Tsar!" and Gergiev's magnificent orchestra re-echoed his defiance, the tingle-factor finally, but far too late, came into play. That orchestra is the Kirov's enduring glory, dark and trenchant and penetrating in the strings, poetic in the winds and implacable in the brass. But really, work of this quality has no place on a major international stage.

Last performance on Saturday (020-7304 4000)