RODION SHCHEDRIN: The Left-Hander – Mariinsky Orch. and Chorus/Valery Gergiev/Andrei Popov, tenor/Edward Tsanga, bass-bar./Vladimir Moroz, bar./Kristina Alieva, sop./Maria Maksakova, mezzo-sop. – Mariinsky MAR0554 (2 multichannel SACDs)[Distr. by Naxos] (3/10/15) 119:27 ***:

Rodion Shchedrin is an important Russian composer who has developed quite a reputation for theatre works, like his Boyarina Morozova, Carmen Suite ballet and The Humpbacked Horse ballet. He has also written some impressive orchestral works including a Concerto for Orchestra and a very fine Piano Concerto. His theatre works revolve a lot around stories and folk lore that are well known in Russia if not elsewhere. Such is the case here in this world premiere from 2013.

The intriguing (to Americans) title of this two act opera takes its name from a play by the Russian humorist/playwright Nikolai Leskov, “Lefty: The Tale of Cross-Eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea.” (Even that lengthy title leads to all sorts of questions to be answered in the plot. I got over my self-amused hope that it would be about a MLB relief pitcher!)

In a lot of Russian stories and theatre farces there are political undertones and not too subtle references to politics. This play includes the Czars Alexander I, Nicholas I and members of the British royal court, a talking mechanical flea and others. The title character is, indeed, cross-eyed and also illiterate but very crafty and skilled in manual labor; and – as in many of these stories – more world-wise than the powerful. Additionally, Leskov and Shchedrin – author of his own libretto – make fun of what seems to be the irrational behavior of the Russian courts of the time compared to the exaggerated order of the British way of governance.

Shchedrin is, himself, a very interesting figure who, at one time, hung out in cultural and political circles that included the likes of scientist Andrei Sarkharov and future president Boris Yeltsin. Over the last many years he has produced many ballet and opera works for the Mariinksy Theatre – much of which are based, as is the present, on fables, populist literature and folklore.

The plot in this case is actually both farcical and a tad convoluted, involving the “steel flea” (a wind-up toy who is also given a vocal role) arriving from England and presented to the Russian nobles, Lefty being used as skilled labor and taking an ill-fated voyage back to Russia and so forth. There are even some bizarre references to religious visions and what we could take as the hypocrisy of traditions while the ‘common man’ holds the true power, and so forth (even a few moments of people getting drunk in groups!).

As I said, the story is fairly hard to follow and not at all linear. Symbolism is everywhere and, much as in Shostakovich, Shchedrin’s music uses little bursts of dissonance and percussion effects and para-military music to underscore the more “sarcastic” moments. The music is not hard to listen to though. Even if a listener had heard nothing of Shchedrin’s work to compare it to, there are moments of tender beauty, some of that sardonic violence and even some humorous orchestrations to enjoy. The performances here are all quite good and Valery Gergiev maintains his status as one of Russia’s greatest living conductors and a sound advocate of contemporary theater and orchestral scores.

I do recommend following the libretto while listening for full effect, although one can still enjoy the music itself without knowing at all what is being said. I think that people who appreciate modern opera or contemporary music from Russia in particular would like this a great deal. For those already familiar with Rodion Shchedrin this is a necessary addition. The sound quality and packaging from Mariinsky’s own label and engineers is superb.

—Daniel Coombs