The UK premiere of Levsha (‘The Left-hander’) or The Tale of the Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea was scheduled to start at 7.00pm at the Barbican Centre. At about 7.10pm there were still no members of the illustrious Mariinsky Opera’s orchestra on the stage, apart from a lone wraith of a harpist, tuning rather prettily as harpists do. We then had an announcement from one of the Barbican management, explaining that Maestro Valery Gergiev had been unavoidably detained “due to circumstances beyond his and our control.” So would the performance start thirty minutes late? No. We were asked to wait a further half hour at which time someone might just have a vague idea about whether or not the performance would even take place. By 7.45pm people were already queuing up for refunds while the rest of us wandered aimlessly around the foyer, contemplating if we really wanted to wade through the standing water on the Barbican Estate after 11.00pm. At 7.50pm it was announced that the performance would begin at 8.00pm and by about 8.10pm the Company piled on to the stage with Maestro Gergiev entering with, rather than after, his singers. The Barbican staff handled the situation as well as they could, but by the interval the already modest audience was drastically depleted.
What was and still is missing is an explanation of why Maestro Gergiev delayed the performance. Had he got lost within the Barbican? Had his dog stolen his favourite baton? Unremitting silence can so easily be interpreted as an arrogant disregard for the paying public, although I have a theory that this was some form of Russian absurdist humour, designed to show the British public how much cleverer the Russians are than we. After all, this was in essence what the opera was about.
The last time I heard the Mariinsky Opera perform was back in 2011 at the Edinburgh Festival. I was struck then by just how very different the Russian artistic sensibility is from the Austro-Germanic model we are taught in the West. The Russian fairytales depicted on collectors’ plates are painted in impossibly vivid colours; a raw sexuality pervades both the humour and the art. The Russian version of Absurdism – used as a means of transcending political and social oppression – can be fiercely polemical, even cruel; instead of recapitulation and resolution, harmonic and structural questions raised by the composer often remain unanswered. When the wonderful brass section of the Mariinsky are in full flight and the unparallelled soaring Russian violinists accompany singers who so effectively portray the divine trapped in a mortal frame, I find myself caught up in the world once described to me by the eminent musicologist and Russian scholar Gerard McBurney, “When you listen enraptured to a Russian storyteller, you will begin to believe that one day his grandmother actually did fly out of the window.”
Rodion Shchedrin is Russia’s finest operatic composer today and to my ears encapsulates the Russian spirit in his music. It is extraordinary to think that as a young man (he was born in 1932,) he witnessed Shostakovich’s artistic roller-coaster ride with the Russian authorities. When Shchedrin first married the prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya the KGB bugged their apartment and yet today he has received accolades from President Putin.
In common with his esteemed predecessor, Shchedrin hasn’t flinched from setting some of Russia’s most challenging literary creations. Shostakovich created an opera from Gogol’s The Nose whereas Shchedrin wrote Dead Souls (1976) which was highly acclaimed in the USA as well as his native Russia. It is largely atonal with smatterings of Russian folk music. Listening to his succession of piano concertos, his aesthetic seems to progress from Rachmaninov via Modernism to the Post-Modernism of today. ‘’One of the things I like about Shchedrin,” said Gerard McBurney, ”is that every time I go to a concert with a new piece by him, I have no idea what I’m going to hear. What I see in contemporary music is a ton of curves going in different directions, and Shchedrin is a surfer leaping from curve to curve. He reinvents himself all the time.” Levsha which was written in 2012-3 and premiered last year in the new Mariinsky II Theatre, is not only accessible to an international operatic audience, but is both stylistically eclectic and wonderfully atmospheric. I particularly loved his use of the chorus, mingling folk melody with dance rhythms. He writes some beautiful vocal lines and clearly loves the Russian language.
The story on which Levsha is based was written by Nicolai Leskov (1831-95,) author of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Leskov was a contemporary of Tolstoy and yet he is hardly known outside Russia. Shchedrin writes, “He is less famous than his contemporaries Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky because it is quite difficult to translate his vivid and extremely individual language. In addition to that, he is probably more of a Russian than an international writer in every respect.” Leskov, although he died in 1895, was a writer subsequently approved of by the Soviet regime because of his ability to empathise with the needs of the common people. According to the composer, “The protagonist, a cross-eyed, uneducated craftsman from Tula ‘with golden hands’ represents many of the traits frequently associated with Russian national identity: singular talent, quick thinking, ironic wit, indifference towards life and a fatal passion for alcohol. This is paired with the eternal Russian theme of authority versus the common people.”
In Leskov’s story, the British royal family present Tsar Nicholas I with a microscopic animatronic flea, crafted from steel. The flea, when wound up with a key, sings in English. The Cossack, Atamon Platov witnesses the presentation and is determined to prove to the world that “English craftmanship is good, but Russian artisans could do better.” Levsha and his fellow villagers refashion the flea and give it Russian shoes. Levsha is then dispatched to London where the flea now both sings in Russian and dances. Princess Charlotte (the Tsar’s consort) tries to marry him off to English brides, but he is homesick and makes a drunken journey home with a First Mate. On landing they are both arrested. The English sailor is sent to the British Embassy whilst Levsha is beaten up and dies of his injuries.
I recognised two names from the 2011 production at the Edinburgh Festival, Andrey Popov as Levsha and Edem Umerov as the First Mate. Umerov is a fine baritone of international quality and Popov a typical high Russian tenor with that very specific plaintive sound and wonderful control in falsetto. Vladimir Moroz was suitably noble and declamatory as the Tsar and the wonderfully doll-like Kristina Alieva sang the high coloratura part of the Flea with crystalline beauty. The one disappointment in the cast was the mezzo Maria Maksakova who towered over the men in scarlet nylon and a fright wig, looking like a cross between Lily Savage and Anna Nicole. No British mezzo with that wide a vibrato would be cast here in a major role. (The Russians might have won the 19th century competition to see whose artisans were superior, but we can take comfort that Britain produces far finer mezzo-sopranos.)
Maestro Gergiev is the architect of a campaign to get Shchedrin’s music heard in London. Shchedrin fully acknowledges the special role Gergiev plays: “Yes, he is fantastic. He says so many right things to the orchestra – don’t just play it as music, this is “theatre”! And so they play it in a totally different manner.” I always find it hard to answer the question, “And what does this opera sound like?” because in my head there are all the strands such as the fact that this composer was writing ballet music before I was born, at a time when his only access to the great ballets of Stravinsky was in dusty libraries. I hear him talk of a life of penury because for the majority of his working life, he was an outsider: “For 35 years there was a dictatorship of the avant-garde and I was never a member of it. For me music’s all about intuition and emotion. This was really a very powerful dictatorship. If you aren’t in the circle you are not a composer, you are bad a priori – without them hearing one bar of your music. Any kind of dictatorship is terrible, and in art it’s terrible.”
And yet despite all this oppression Levsha is a thing of beauty and that beauty is amplified for me because it is truly Russian and therefore exotic. The exclusion of Western art from the USSR worked both ways. Yes, Levsha briefly harks back to the sound world of Shostakovich and even Rachmaninov, but his use of the chorus as folk singers evoking village life Tula, or as the sound of artisans working with anvils is both unique and full of pathos. His vocal lines too are lyrical, poignant and quintessentially Russian to my ears, as vivid as a Russian painted lacquer work – produced by artisans who prior to the Russian Revolution would have been icon painters. Any audience will engage emotionally with Levsha, a man condemned to suffer just because he is a blue-collar worker and not an aristocrat. We believe in his suffering, thanks to the 82-year-old Rodion Shchedrin: “I have to say that a composer’s life is a marathon. It’s not a sprint that you win and then you’re a gold medalist for eternity. No, it’s a marathon. You go up and down, you lose energy, you get revitalised. Of course it’s a good thing if you receive a long life from the gods!”
Photos: Barbican/Mark Allan