Opera Profile: The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko

By John Vandevert
(Credit: Marc Brenner)

The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko” is a two-act opera composed by the former investment fund manager, investor, and composer Anthony Bolton, with a libretto by British composer and playwright Kit Hesketh-Harvey.


The opera was originally written by Bolton during the period of 2012 to 2020, whose story was based on the controversial assassination of British-naturalized Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko (a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer and staunch political activist against Russian governmental corruption).

In 2012, he purchased the “opera rights” to the book “Death of a Dissident,” written by Litvinenko’s wife Marina and Alex Goldfarb. In 2014,  Bolton began working on the libretto alongside Hesketh-Harvey. However, following a “public enquiry” (official review of governmental actions) in 2015 by the High Court of England and Wales concluded that Russian spies Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun (under the probable direction of the FSB) had poisoned Litvinenko with polonium-210 (a highly radioactive metal which can cause cancer and death in large doses).

As a result of this update, Bolton had realized the final piece to his opera stating in 2021, “the final piece of the jigsaw was in place, and I could compose in earnest.”

The opera was originally planned to premiere at Grange Park Opera in Surrey, England, in 2020. However, because of COVID-19, it was delayed to July 15th, 2021. The premiere was directed by British director Stephen Medcalf and conducted by English conductor Stephen William Barlow.

One idiosyncratic element was the use of a recorded orchestral accompaniment by the BBC Concert Orchestra due to the restrictions on gathering and personal space at the time of the premiere. The night of its premiere, it was a sold-out house.

In attendance was Marina herself, who told AFP, “It’s very emotional because I see not only my story, I can listen to music. And this altogether makes a very strong feeling.”

When asked about the opera, Lugovoy said, “I definitely won’t lose any sleep over a British director seeing me as an operatic villain.”

The Story

The opera’s two acts skip around dates during Litvinenko’s life but generally follow a flash-back-styled format. In the prologue to Act one, the opera’s tenor is set with Litvinenko in his London hospital room in 2006, speaking his final words after his poisoning (according to Marina, they were “I love you” only for her ears), while the chorus sings of the substance which was used to render him feeble.

Act one is a multitude of vignettes from Litvinenko’s life, including the reminiscing on the couple’s life together in Britain, past work experience with the FSB, the 2002 Chechen terrorist attack on the Moscow  Dubrovka Theater, and the consequential reporting by the late reporter Anna Politkovskaya (she was also assassinated), Litvinenko’s experiences during the Second Chechen War (1999-2000), as well as his refusal to kill the oligarch Boris Berezovsky (found hung in his apartment under mysterious circumstances), and his provocative, televised report on domestic, state corruption.

Act two consists of several more moments in Litvinenko’s life, including Berezovsky’s aid in helping him and his family, make their migration to the UK and Litvinenko’s attendance at Berezovsky’s 60th birthday party. This would be the place where he would meet a former FSB colleague. Namely, one of his future assassins Andrei Lugovoy, and despite many warnings, Litvinenko wouldn’t take proper care of the suspicions of this person. Other scenes include his meeting with Politkovskaya and her eventual murder in Moscow by six convicted killers, although no consensus was reached. The final two scenes include Lugovoy meeting Litvinenko and poisoning him with polonium-laced tea and the final words of Litvinenko as Marina sings a moaning lamentation over his dead body.


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