Levsha is a tale of gifts: of the homespun genius of craftsmen, and the calculated largesse of statesmen. Directly inspired by a short story by Nikolai Leskov, author of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (a source for Shostakovich), Shchedrin’s opera examines how diplomatic offerings (subtle and unsubtle) and the ripples they can cause disturb the smooth surface of policy to reveal the national characters involved. The British present the touring Tsar Nicholas with an extraordinary object: a mechanical flea, made of British steel, which can dance a quadrille and recite the alphabet. Feeling challenged by such an exquisite example of craftsmanship, Tsar Nicholas takes the flea back to Russia and shows it to the famous gunsmiths of Tula, who go one better by fitting horseshoes to the flea, and returning it to England, where it now recites the Russian alphabet, and dances the folk Baraynya. The British try hard to tempt Levsha, the left-handed and cross-eyed craftsman responsible for this further marvel, to stay and work for them, but he returns to Russia (sadly, to an untimely and obscure death, unrecognised and unappreciated by his countrymen).

Shchedrin’s opera is itself, charmingly, a present: the score is dedicated to Valery Gergiev for his 60th birthday, and Shchedrin has filled it with musical references to favourite composers, making a treasure-hunt for his friend. In Gergiev’s turn, he commissioned this work from Shchedrin to celebrate the Mariinsky’s splendid new theatre (where it premiered in June last year). There could, therefore, be no better way to hear this than with Gergiev himself at the helm, conducting the Mariinsky Opera Orchestra, for the UK première at the Barbican, and the sound Gergiev created was suitably fabulous, despite his severe back problems (which delayed the start by an hour). The orchestra is joined by Russian folk instruments, the domra (large balalaika), duduk (pipe) and the bayan (harmonica), all adding native colour.

Shchedrin’s music is powerfully fascinating, with striking use of percussion to create instant atmosphere, lyrical evocations of nature (particularly the rapturous writing for the river Tulitsa, celebrated with supernatural beauty by a recurring female duet) contrasting with grandiloquent, brass-laden court music, and intense religious choruses at its close. In a brilliant portrayal of the sea, sinuous melodies swell and billow to sudden, terrifyingly sharp crescendos. The score is peppered with playful jokes, including the genuinely comic use of humming at moments of social awkwardness, and even the sounds of industry are beautiful, quite the opposite of Alberich’s evil anvils: sparkling bell sounds and gently sonorous hammering, made smooth by wine glasses rubbed with water, imply a world of magical invention. 

Against this rich musical landscape, some characters are more successful than others. As Ataman Platov, Edward Tsanga’s voice grew in assurance and strength throughout the evening, creating one of the finest performances on stage, with bags of Cossack gravitas and grumpy patriotism. The stellar performance of the night was the Flea, Kristina Alieva: confident and comfortable over some stratospherically high notes, Alieva was a poised presence on stage, full of quiet energy, although her musicianship rather outshone her acting. Shchedrin’s beautiful writing for the Flea (punning on the disjointed sounds of a slowing musical box) bristles with technical challenge, but Alieva navigated her jumping notes with supple clarity. Meanwhile, as our unlikely hero Levsha, Andrei Popov sang with sweet sincerity, vulnerable and appealing as his voice slid precariously from falsetto and back again, the role seeming to hover in a slightly uncomfortable part of his register, but always transmitted with conviction.

The smaller roles were also skilfully portrayed, with two English brides played by Ekaterina Krapivina (complete with Disney-Princess-esque birdsong as she sings of love) and Marina Aleshonkova, one of my highlights of the evening, with magnetic presence and a truly lovely soprano. As the Under-Skipper, Edem Umerov was strong, convincing and commanded attention with a superbly rich voice and excellent characterisation.

The royal characters did not come off so well. Maria Maksakova played Princess Charlotte with more simpering than singing, her vibrato so wide that it threatened to dislodge her every note. Rather than acting, she coloured her gestures with a species of cheap eroticism, dull to watch and awkward to endure, which did not endear her performance. Tsar Nicholas I seemed a rather flat and ponderous character in Vladimir Moroz’s hands; this role could contain much subtle humour, or brooding menace, but Moroz never got near either, though his strong tenor maintained his demandingly protracted notes well. Nevertheless, despite these misjudgements, the overall intelligence of the piece shone out.

The glorious Mariinsky Chorus take centre stage for the final moments of the opera, an enthralling prayer for mercy from God at the death of Levsha, recalling Orthodox ecclesiastical music but shot through with twisting pokers of fear and tension. The Flea’s final, extraordinary lullaby for Levsha leaves us on a surreal, tragic note: capturing, as Rodion Shchedrin hoped in his pre-performance talk, the mood of a Charlie Chaplin film, the laughter which leads to tears. Richly imagined, with serious literary heritage and fascinating themes, not to mention comic and dramatic potential, Levsha deserves to enter the repertoire.