Opera: Rich and strange

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two ways of thinking about the production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov which opened the Bolshoi Opera's first ever London season at the Coliseum on Tuesday. Either it's a museum-piece, a 50-year-old relic of the fustiest era of Soviet music theatre; or it's a postmodern tease, a brilliant satire on the earnest rectitude of Nineties Westernism - the Urtexts, the director's theatre, the decontextualisation, and all the rest of it.

Consider what's on offer. The Bolshoi still do Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement, which is conceivable only as an act of authenticism, like playing Mozart's Handel or Wagner's Gluck. But it's far from pure Rimsky. The score is slashed and burnt; the Polish scenes are reduced to one, Rangoni is purged altogether, and Fyodor loses his parrot song. Instead we get the St Basil scene, cut by Mussorgsky and never orchestrated by Rimsky, which in turn means double duty for the Simpleton and more cuts to the Kromy scene.

Finally, this whole glorious stitch-up is played in costumes and sets of a period magnificence and atmosphere such as a Western director would risk only for some mad relocation of The Ring or Wozzeck.

To experience such a play of architecture and colour in today's theatre is like recapturing the flavour of childhood lollipops; it may not be the very finest thing imaginable by a solemn adult, but it does breathe that magical otherness so often expressly denied by the modern stage. And the same might be said of Rimsky's scoring, which sparkles and glitters with its woodwind and brass effects - not always bang in place in Tuesday's mostly very well played performance.

As for the singing: well, Russians rarely let you down in this sector. I was disappointed, though, by Vladimir Matorin's Boris, muted by the great standards of the past and struggling to maintain tension in the death scene. He's at his best in the wonderful exchange with the Simpleton - a figure brilliantly conveyed by Leonid Bomshteyn, sung with the regal destitution still evidently native to the Russian concept of the holy fool.

Elsewhere the action is dominated by the strong, brooding Grigory of Vitali Tarashchenko, Vladimir Kudryashov's impassive Shuisky, and the usual string of basses, among whom Alexander Kisselev's Pimen and the Bardolph-like Varlaam of Vyacheslav Pochapski offer well-fixed portraits if not great singing.

The sopranos, even in Rimsky, get short shrift by comparison, and most of them lose important music. Elena Obraztsova barely has time to steady her voice, much less establish a character, as Marina. Ekaterina Golovleva is a personable Fyodor, Irina Doljenko a nice, bouncy Hostess.

Over everything hangs the power and richness of Mussorgsky, in the expert hands of Mark Ermler, who has no truck with the ponderous speeds of the new Boris school but moves things along in true Rimsky fashion, alert to practicalities such as dinner bookings and last trains.

`Boris Godunov' tonight, then Prokofiev's `Love for Three Oranges' on Saturday (0171-632 8300)