Shchedrin’s Opera The Left-Hander directed by Alexei Stepanyuk

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Shchedrin
LABELS: Mariinsky
ALBUM TITLE: Shchedrin
WORKS: The Left-Hander
PERFORMER: Andrei Popov, Edward Tsanga, Vladiir Moroz, Kristina Alieva, Maria Maksakova; Mariinsky Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev; dir. Alexei Stepanyuk (St Petersburg, 2013)
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0588 (Blu-ray & DVD)

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Looking like a stock Flying Dutchman picture, this cover image of a storm-tossed schooner does at least evoke one episode in The Left-Hander. The title character, a squint-eyed, left-handed gunsmith from the village of Tula, makes a fateful return voyage from London to St Petersburg, crucial in the Nikolai Leskov story that timelessly explores Russia’s uneasy relationship with the west. Having been pressed into service in order to prove the superiority of Russian craftsmanship, and given the task of refashioning a lifesized dancing steel flea that the English have presented the tsar, the homesick Left-Hander loses a drinking competition to an English sailor – and on docking is quickly discarded and left to die.

Shchedrin’s sixth opera (also the third of his works drawn from Leskov) adds up to a haunting exploration of the Russian national consciousness, and his colourfully inventive score places it firmly in the tradition of Russian opera. Filmed at its 2013 premiere in St Petersburg, it comes to life through a mixture of pathos and satire in Alexei Stepanyuk’s simple staging – though the fairly basic set limits the camera angles. Period costumes are given a surreal twist, with the London scenes represented by red telephone boxes, brollies and female platoon of palace guards.

The strong Mariinsky cast is led by the plaintively lyrical tenor Andrei Popov in the title role, Kristina Alieva as the coloratura-singing Flea and an elegant Vladimir Moroz as Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I. Valery Gergiev, the opera’s dedicatee, conducts with complete conviction.

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John Allison