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The Left-Hander (Levsha)
K. Alieva, Maksakova; Popov, Moroz, Tsanga; Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater; Gergiev. Libretto and translation. Mariinsky 0554 (2 SACDs)
Rodion Shchedrin (1932- ) has shown commendable longevity. A successful and decorated composer under the Soviet regime, he has continued to produce music in subsequent years. The balletic adaptation of Carmen that he devised for his wife, Bolshoi Theater prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, remains the best-known of his works in the West. Like many prominent cultural figures, he has chosen recently to concentrate on older Russian themes and sources as inspiration. Previous operas had adapted Gogol and Nabokov. Three of Shchedrin’s compositions have adapted works by the brilliant, conservative nineteenth century writer Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), whose name operagoers may recognize in connection with his tale “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” 1988 — the thousandth anniversary of Russia’s adopting Christianity — yielded a choral work based on the miraculous Old Believers-themed tale The Sealed Angel. Another Leskov opera for Shchedrin, commissioned and premiered in 2002 by the New York Philharmonic, was the moribund, derivative Enchanted Wanderer.
Again fashioning his own libretto (which the Mariinsky booklet gives in Cyrillic and English translation), the veteran composer has done much better by the two act Levsha (The Left Hander), dedicated to and premiered by Valery Gergiev at the Petersburg company’s new stage. One of Leskov’s richest mature works, Levsha (1881) deals in mordant satire as well as the author’s trademark stylized folk language. Using a naive but highly skilled craftsman from the provincial city of Tula as picaresque protagonist, Leskov contrasts typical Russian and British qualities — good and bad — that are set in motion by a gift to Tsar Alexander I of a mechanical flea. The Russians feel compelled to surpass this feat domestically; for Alexander’s brother and successor Nikolai I, Levsha shoes the flea like a horse, and sets off to adventures in England. A drinking contest with an English tar on the return voyage produces fatal results.
Shchedrin parses and sets the text very cleverly, with lively and often humorous orchestration, folkish when needed. This live set preserves the work’s stage premiere in 2013, with some splices from the following day. Levsha is definitely an ensemble piece best suited to a company like the Mariinsky, with its expert chorus and strongly enacted minor parts. Gergiev has brought tenor Andrey Popov to the Met in two roles: as the Police Inspector in The Nose (showcasing a dazzlingly uninhibited upper register) and Prince Igor’s cowardly Yeroshka. As Levsha, Popov is called upon for wide-ranging virtuoso service— not always dulcet — and rises to the challenge, not without the requisite pathos. Bass-baritone Edward Tsanga as the Cossack leader Platov — a central character and narrator here — performs very solidily. Tsanga and baritone Vladimir Moroz (as Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I) both tend toward stentorian utterance. Mezzo Maria Maksakova invests British Princess Charlotte — granted, not a sympathetic figure — with an unpleasant tone full of tremolo. Baritone Andrei Spekhov’s English sailor also dispenses unprepossessing tremulousness. But Kristina Alieva’s precise high coloratura does excellent work in the role of the Flea, winning applause for her Olympia-like vocal flights. After her short lullaby, the dead Levsha finds his eternal rest to an unaccompanied liturgical chorus that echoes Tchaikovsky’s final card trick in Queen of Spades.
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