Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b.1932) The Left-Hander (2013) [119:27]
Andrei Popov (tenor) – The Left-Hander
Edward Tsanga (bass baritone) – Ataman Platov
Vladimir Moroz (baritone) – Alexander I /Nicholas I
Kristina Alieva (soprano) – The Flea
Maria Maksakova (mezzo) – Princess Charlotte
Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus/Valery Gergiev
rec. 2013, Mariinsky-II, St Petersburg, Russia. MARIINSKY SACD MAR0554 [59:13 + 60:14]
If you’ve heard of Rodion Shchedrin the likelihood is it was through his popular Carmen Suite, but there are increasing amounts of his music around on CD these days (review). I have been impressed over the years by recordings such as his piano music and Parabola Concertante.
Shchedrin’s opera The Left-Hander is based on a story which is famous in Russia, Nikolai Leskov’s “Lefty: The Tale of Cross-Eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea”, and both the “motley cast of lively, colourful characters” and this composer’s remarkably inventive and quirky operatic setting are indeed very Russian indeed.
The plot of The Left-Hander is so strange that there is no real attempt at a synopsis in the booklet, just some hints to look out for. These include “the juxtaposition of two ways of life: that of the rational British and the irrational Russians” or the character of the protagonist, “a condensation of the most essential and typical features of the Russian national character: innovative talent, resourcefulness, the ability to laugh at oneself, lack of concern for human life and a disastrous love of alcohol.”
You can’t listen to opera casually, and while the original Cyrillic offers few clues to the uninitiated it pays to follow the drama with the libretto in its English translation. There is a useful table in the booklet showing the Russian alphabet with English equivalent letters and sounds, so you can learn all 33 characters and read the text phonetically if that helps, but the English version is easy to follow as long as you don’t lose your place. Musical distortion is a great feature of this grand opera. UK listeners will zoom in on something like the orchestral interlude in Act One, Buckingham Palace, which is a bizarre parody on Walton-esque pomp and circumstance so extreme that it turns back on itself and blows raspberries into everyone’s expectations. Russian surrealism at its best suffuses every corner of the work, responding to the libretto with moments which hint at Stravinsky, others which draw on stereotypes from horror to folk-tinted balalaikas and hobbling dances. The Left-Hander has its ancestors in works such as Shostakovich’s The Nose, operas which are both deadly serious artistic statements and vehicles for pricking the bubble of authority’s pompous ambitions and the petty squabbles of people and nations.
The Steel Flea, a miniature clockwork marvel from England in its “royal snuffbox” is admired by the Russians. Determined not to be outdone they immediately hatch plans to come up with something better. The Left-Hander’s craftsmanship creates something so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. This is sent back to England, and received with amazement by The Lords of the Treasury and the presciently named Princess Charlotte. They try to persuade The Left-Hander to stay with offers of an education and a wife but, racked by homesickness and after quietly obtaining a glimpse of how the English make their muskets, he is allowed home. The returning ship is engulfed by a heaving storm and The Left-hander and Under-Skipper have a drinking wager and become completely sodden. Hauled from the ship in St Petersburg, the police refuse to take in The Left-Hander due to his lack of papers. He is taken to a hospital and dies there, his final ‘passion’ including allusions to J.S. Bach, his last words a message to the Tsar that “the English don’t clean their muskets with brick dust …” – so neither should we …
The Left-Hander is a real masterpiece and stuffed full of so many good things and excellent performances that it’s hard to point out much in the way of highlights. Soprano Kristina Aliewa’s coloratura moments as The Flea are the ones which are deservedly given applause, but audience noise and extraneous bumping around on stage is kept to a reasonable minimum in this live recording. The ending is so sublime that I suppose we have to excuse the entire five minutes of applause and cheering included in the final track. All roles are played with character and distinction, and the orchestra and chorus sound lively and alertly enthusiastic. There is plenty of variety, and also quite a few moments of beautiful compositional alchemy. It’s no good putting on something like this and expecting to fall in love with it immediately however. You need to find out what is going on and engage the intellect in some understanding of the action and text as it progresses. Recurring themes such as the winding-up of the steel fleas and location-specific music such as that for Buckingham Palace all make for points of orientation. The richness of Shchedrin’s orchestration and his canny knack in pacing the drama and setting text effectively all coalesce to create a modern opera which inhabits and enhances the genre’s long and noble tradition while at the same time making something really new and refreshing.
The SACD recording is very fine, the booklet impeccably presented. If you love opera and are attracted by the Russian traditions of surrealism and dark humour, then this is an extremely fertile place to plant your flag.