Musorgsky’s doom-laden opera makes its return to the Coliseum in a new production of the original seven-scene version, directed by Tim Albery. The plot, roughly (and leaving out a couple of hundred minor characters): Boris, self-made nobleman and chief advisor to the recently deceased Tsar Fyodor, prays for guidance. Russia is “threatened with anarchy” and the mother church, his fellow nobles and the massed populace are clamouring for Boris’s leadership. (No jokes, please.) He accepts the throne, and almost immediately is beset by intrigue. A rumour that he killed Fyodor’s predecessor, Dmitri, gains traction. Then famine strikes. Boris’s subjects begin to lose faith. A young monk, Grigory Otrepyev, claiming to be Dmitri (rescued, resurrected, reborn . . . it doesn’t much matter), mounts an insurrection, backed by Catholics abroad and subversive powers at home. Boris sees conspiracy everywhere. Tormented by visions of the murdered Dmitri, he rapidly loses his mind and dies, praying that his son and successor will be protected “from sin and temptation”.

Too bad for Russia, one might add. The death of the real Boris Godunov (1605) ushered in the Romanov dynasty. It took three centuries for them to be ushered out.

Pushkin’s drama – written, with pleasing irony, while he was under arrest by the Romanovs – is frustratingly unclear on Boris’s populist credentials, and on how much we’re supposed to sympathise with him (history is rather less clear on whether he had Dmitri killed).

Musorgsky’s score, though, is intense and compelling (2h 10min: no interval), and – without wanting to compound Russian stereotypes – at its best when dishing out the foreboding and anguish. Highlights included the hints-of-Orthodox popular choruses (harmonically stirring, and as realistic as choruses get) and the coronation scene, with its peals of bells effectively over-scored by the ominous, semi-tuned clangour of what sounded like someone trying to fix his Lada with a wrench.

The design, too – by Tobias Hoheisel (set) and Brigitte Reiffenstahl (costumes) – supported the persistent sense of un-averted disaster. The peasantry had shades of the gulag about them, huddled in the great wooden box of a stage, itself slanted as though about to slip into the waves.

Old gripe. Pushkin is wordy stuff, but the singers did little justice to David Lloyd-Jones’s translation and all too often the super-titles proved essential (and this is from the good seats). Honourable mentions, though, to three models of clarity: Peter Rose as Boris (pictured), Brindley Sherratt as the old monk, Pimen, and John Graham-Hall as the reviled courtier, Shuisky.

n London Coliseum, until December 1. Tickets: £10-£84, tel. 0871 9211 0200 (