Grange Park Opera 2021 Review: The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko

Anthony Bolton’s New Opera of Assassination & Espionage Fails to Thrill

By Benjamin Poore
(Photo: Marc Brenner)

The world of spies, subterfuge, and assassination has long been grist to the operatic mill. Scarpia runs the secret police in “Tosca”; Paolo poisons Boccanegra in Verdi’s Venetian drama of political intrigue; Leonora infiltrates a prison disguised as a man in “Fidelio”. So a contemporary tale like that of dissident and former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned by a cup of tea laced with polonium in 2006, would seem ripe for an operatic treatment.

“The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko” was delayed for a year by the pandemic, finally receiving its first outing, after a public dress rehearsal earlier in the week, last Thursday at Grange Park Opera in Surrey. The score is by composer Anthony Bolton, a former financier, and libretto by Kit Hesketh-Harvey. The opera has been made in close collaboration with Litvinenko’s widow Marina, whose book “Death of a Dissident” heavily shapes the narrative action. 

The opera, cast in two acts, begins in the hospital with Litvinenko’s famous testament to the press. Two stories are effectively told through tableau-like flashbacks: the reconstruction of Litvinenko’s poisoning and the events leading up to it, and the recent political history of post-Soviet Russia, in all its brutality and corruption. (We see various attempts to bump off enemies of the Kremlin, including journalist Anna Politovskaya). Putin himself appears, sung by a countertenor (whether this is meant to ironically undermine his manly self-portrayals in a pliant Russian media, or simply to paint him as an opera seria bad guy, is unclear) as does oligarch (and marked man) Boris Berezovsky; so too Litvinenko’s assassin Andrei Lugovoy. The story takes in various locales in London, Chechnya, and Moscow.

Where it Falls Flat

Where the drama falls flat is the text. It is deadeningly expository, persistently telling rather than showing. The eruption of actors and chorus into the audience for the Moscow Theatre Siege is a rare exception of events being portrayed rather than simply narrated.

Fact and recollection take the place of character development, to unconvincing dramatic ends. Why would Sasha Litvinenko feel the need, over dinner, to recount events to his wife and son in which they had themselves participated? At another point, Sasha, recalling his time in Chechnya, simply tells us how dreadful the war was and how barefaced the government’s lies were, where there is clearly scope for a scene that makes the point by means of the action itself.

Scene upon scene is a litany of historical facts as if characters are singing a Wikipedia article. As a consequence, we have little sense of the desires that animate Sasha or what his internal conflicts might be – other than wanting to stiff Putin, and a gnawing sense of guilt about the risk to his family when he is imprisoned. This might also be the effect of an opera that is hagiographical in purpose. An instructive parallel might be found in John Adams’ wildly successful “Nixon in China”, which explores real figures and (relatively) recent historical events, but does so with an acute sensitivity to character and psychology that in “Litvinenko” is crowded out by exposition and affectless text, where human interest plays second fiddle.

Some vivacity comes from a dynamic stage picture and well-executed video projections (devised by Will Duke) on screens that roll on and offstage with considerable pace, though do little to quicken the overall dramatic pulse. They offer archive news footage and other kinds of context for the action – but this feels redundant when the characters have told us much the same through song. There was a lively movement across the opera, choreographed by Lynne Hockney – scenes at the Arsenal stadium and an eerily choreographed ball spring to mind.   

Vivid Score

Bolton’s score is vivid enough, drawing heavily on the kind of sound world Benjamin Britten summons in his operas. The scenes in their Muswell Hill home are redolent of “The Turn of the Screw”, and Bolton’s musical and vocal portrait of Sasha summons something like Captain Vere in “Billy Budd”. There are some ingenious moments of pastiche that nod towards other great Russian operas – hinting at Shostakovich’s jazz suites in the act one waltz between Sasha and Marina – and an extended, uncanny play on the great waltz from “Eugene Onegin” at the opening of Act two, in Blenheim Palace. Elsewhere there are moments of cinematic excitement and atmospheric evocation.

Other sequences are rather more boilerplate – not itself an issue in opera, which can survive generic or illustrative music in the service of theatre. But they feel extraneous to the storytelling: soldiers marching on the spot to sing the praises of Russia and military life was just one instance of a rather heavy-handed approach backed by uninspiring music (we can see they’re soldiers; we could’ve inferred their misguided loyalties to the new regime from the conversation that followed with Sasha.)

There are undoubtedly moments of excitement and tenderness. The eerie opening chorus where doctors in scrubs sings about the properties of Polonium is eerily atmospheric. The final duet of Marina and Sasha is tender and convincing. It finally offers some emotional nourishment after what feels like hours of exposition. But the ending itself feels overextended and stifles the very feelings that it begins to open up with a rather redundant final monologue from Marina about how jolly nice Litvinenko is and what a pity it is he’s dead.

Top Notch Musicianship

The music-making itself is top-notch, with superb performances all around. Adrian Dwyer singing Sasha had a limpid, light tenor that shone in moments of lyrical breakout, such as the final scene. He was matched in lyrical intensity by Rebecca Bottone as his wife Marina, who sang with crystalline fragility in her meeting with Sasha in Lefortovo prison.

Stephan Loges plumbed oily, inky depths as Boris Berezovsky; Edmund Danon made a skin-crawling impression as a slippery, light-voiced would-be-friend to Sasha as Lugavoy, his eventual killer. Olivia Ray’s rich and defiant voice as journalist Anna Politkovskaya, another doomed critic of the Kremlin; she shone in a lustrous, wounded account of war crimes in Chechnya. The Grange Park Opera chorus moved seamlessly through myriad costume changes and shifts of mood. James Laing sings a fractious, creepy portrait of Putin when head of the KGB.

Stephen Barlow conducted along to a recording of the BBC Concert Orchestra playing the score, which, although somewhat over-compressed in the theatre, was punchy and atmospheric in its best moments – the music of Lefortovo prison was especially brooding.

As a piece of theatre it falls rather flat; disappointing given the richness of the subject matter, and its resonances with many great operas of Russian intrigue (“Khovanschina,” “The Maid of Pskov,” and “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”).

But Grange Park Opera should certainly be commended for giving over their energies to new work. Opera is still dominated by works over a hundred years old – the summer festival season in the UK especially so – and it needs creatives transfusions. To put on a risky new work, albeit for two performances, during a pandemic that might encourage artistic retrenchment is no mean feat. Perhaps with judicious cuts and a tightening of the text, this opera might ignite some dramatic fire.


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