Mariinsky Opera: Levsha (The Left-hander)

The UK premiere of Shchedrin’s comedy opera

Mariinsky Opera: Levsha (The Left-hander)

If Rodion Shchedrin’s The Left-Hander (2012-13) concerns the invention of the impossible, then Valery Gergiev was the man to present it. His back-breaking schedule for the Mariinsky takes in Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery in Cardiff, Boris Godunov and this concert performance of The Left-Hander in London, and Wagner's Ring Cycle in Birmingham – all in the space of a week. He was late at Welsh National Opera on Monday, and last night’s performance was delayed by an hour (while he presumably made his way down from Birmingham). A bewildered audience roamed the Barbican's foyers. The LSO don’t ‘do’ late: for his home team it was clearly business as usual. Given the opera’s subject, Russian-European relations, I couldn’t help wondering if Gergiev was merely contemptuous or making a cultural point.

First, it should be said that The Left-Hander is a real comic opera of beguiling charm and fizzing vivacity, sharing its absurd grotesquerie with Shostakovich's The Nose, its tingling enchantment with Ravel's L’enfant et les sortilèges and its wild mania with Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest. What grounds it, though, is an overwhelming, Russian nostalgia, an umbilical cord linking back to Musorgsky.

Librettist Nikolai Leskov (author of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District) sets his tale in the reign of George I. The visiting Tsar Alexander is presented with a mechanical steel flea (the divine Kristina Alieva gliding up into the icy stratosphere with insouciant poise), the creation of Princess Charlotte’s finest engineers. His brother Tsar Nicholas, determined to prove that Russian metalworkers are equally skilful, sends it to a cross-eyed, left-handed craftsman in Tula (Levsha, an endearing, clarion-voiced Andrey Popov), who succeeds in getting the flea to wear Russian shoes, recite the Russian alphabet and dance the Barynya. Levsha is sent with a minder to present his achievements to the Princess, who offers an education and a wife, but he flees home, gets drunk on the way and is beaten by thugs and dies, before he can tell the Tsar the secret of Britain’s superior guns (they clean them).

It begins with a chortle from a cheeky trumpet straight of out of Shostakovich. Then comes Vladimir Moroz (Tsar Nicholas) whose first long, magnificently burnished note signals the rare vocal quality of this ensemble, from the celestial purity of the Russian idyll (Ekaterina Goncharova, Yulia Matochkina) to the pompous trio of English Lords (Dmitry Koleyshko, Mikhail Latyshev and Vladimir Zhivopistsev), to the macerated-strawberries-depth of Princess Charlotte herself, a luscious, simpering Maria Maksakova.

Combined with a dazzlingly colourful score (complete with bayan, cimbalon, whistles, harpsichord and glass harmonica), there were times when it felt as elaborate as a Fabergé Egg: all jewels and precious metals, but ornamental rather than essentially dramatic.

Its initial, archly formal scenes drag, but it picks up pace when we meet the left-hander himself, who’s given a fluid lyricism and a bewitching falsetto. His exhilarating, cross-rhythmic duet with the chorus is just one scene I would gladly put on repeat, as I would the jangling incandescence of the foundry scenes, the virtuosic brass fluorescences (played here to soft perfection), and the spell-binding, religious finale from this gleaming, gutsy chorus, basses descending almost below the threshold of sound.

The critique on Russians in Europe is as enigmatic and slyly amused as the flea herself: Shchedrin, who came on stage and took the biggest cheer, dedicated it to Gergiev: a shaman of miraculous powers wilfully misunderstood by the West? Or a powerful, brute egotist who will not play by the rules? Companies of the world take note: this is an opera crying out to be staged.


Photo: Mark Allan/Barbican




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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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