Conductor Valery Gergiev, composer Rodion Shchedrin and the Mariinsky Opera itself – these names have long been brands of quality and style in Russian theatre culture. The title of their latest production at the Barbican – The Left-Hander – is perhaps unfamiliar to many, but its fantastical plot is undoubtedly topical for Russia’s relationship with England today.
Based on Nikolai Leskov’s novella, the opera is a tragic-comic exploration of Anglo-Russian mutual understanding, revolving around new technology and the competition behind it. Shchedrin is well known for his masterful tackling of lesser known Russian literary sources. Of these Leskov is one of the most underrated Russian authors of the 19th century, even if some will have heard of his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, The Enchanted Wanderer and, indeed, The Left-Hander (‘Levsha’ in Russian). Either way, Leskov is particularly compelling today as an author who pursued narratives of international significance and wit.
At the heart of this opera’s plot is a craftily engineered dancing metal flea of English manufacture. Once this charming miniature catches the eye of Russian Tsar Nicholas I, he’s immediately smitten and provoked by the skills of the English. His advisor, the Ataman of the Don Cossack army, is keen to prove to the Tsar that Russians too are capable of intricate craftsmanship. Recruiting a cross-eyed left-handed craftsman from Tula to take up the technical quest, the Ataman discovers a truly underrated artisan whose fate from hereon in proceeds in a tragic way. The rest of the opera develops in a satirical and somewhat grotesque manner, putting the Left-Hander under the pressures of the Russian imperial system and depicting his adventures in England.
Unexpectedly for a satirical opera with Anglo-Russian connotations, there are no clichéd subliminal messages. The message is ambiguous, but thought-provoking. The authorities at the Winter and Buckingham Palaces set out vigorously to prove their country’s technical excellence over a microscopic Flea, which turns out to be quite insignificant. The real do-ers in this game of skill bond over drinks and seem to be blissfully unaware of their genius, if not the pressure they’re under. The Left-Hander proves to be a fool-for-Christ kind of character who represents the idyll of an apolitical rural Russia and stands for an ambiguous and neglected Russian soul.
It’s therefore all the more unfortunate that the UK premiere of The Left-Hander commenced an hour late, leaving a sparser crowd than anticipated. This technical hiccup was disappointing in a concert performance – something which doesn’t offer the escapism of a theatre-spectacle, which might more easily have shaken off a bad start. It seemed the performers too were simply tired as a result. While the overall score and the concept of the opera were remarkable, the opera itself felt too slow-paced for such a conservative staging.
That said, for a semi-staged performance, without any theatrical makeover, The Left-Hander‘s directors managed some charming touches. The strikingly petite and delicate Kristina Alieva was immediately recognisable as the fantastical central character, The Flea. To reflect the results of her makeover by the Tula craftsman the Flea’s enchanting clock-work soprano switched from singing out the English alphabet to a Russian one – a simple, yet elegant trick. As an opera exploring the themes of Russian authority and Russo-English international affairs, The Left-Hander shows undoubted potential for becoming a powerful fully-staged performance – if all goes right next time.
The Mariinsky Opera’s The Left Hander was produced by the Barbican, Silk St., London.