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 The Nose, its tingling enchantment with 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 Mussorgsky.
Nikolay Leskov (author of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District) sets his tale in the reign of George 1. 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 Baraynya. 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, 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’s (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 (who, appropriately, also presents a TV programme entitled The Romance of the Romance).
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.
Mariinsky Chorus ‘A spirit of truth and fire’ Barbican 5 November
The Mariinsky Opera present The Ring, Birmingham Hippodrome 5-9 November