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We’d been warned. Yet still the “Chechen rebels” who took to the stage and pointed automatic rifles at us made the heart lurch. This recreation of the 2002 siege in a Moscow theatre was one of many fact-based episodes in Anthony Bolton’s The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko, which had its world premiere at Grange Park Opera last week. This examination of events surrounding the Russian defector’s poisoning in a London hotel in 2006 is thoughtful as documentary, flawed as opera. Unsurprisingly, the Russian media has taken an interest in a piece that has a chorus of health workers chanting “Polonium!”, and a KGB boss, eerily sung by a countertenor (James Laing), who could just be the current Russian president.
The subject is ripe for drama, as Lucy Prebble’s 2019 play at the Old Vic, A Very Expensive Poison, demonstrated. Whereas that was based on Luke Harding’s book about the killing, Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s libretto follows the published account by Litvinenko’s wife, Marina. Its anti-Putin stance is clear. Opening with Litvinenko (Adrian Dwyer) in his hospital bed, it returns full-circle some three hours later. Had it ended there – the thunderous “death music” makes an impact – it would have been more effective. Instead, a lengthy postlude, in which Marina (expressively sung by Rebecca Bottone) mourns her husband, is well-intentioned but prosaic.
A trained musician who has spent his life as a banker, Bolton (b1950) is both an investor – his dedication to the Litvinenko story is heartfelt – and a borrower. The music is an illustrative montage snipped from the canon or Russian music, with echoes of Britten and a mostly declamatory vocal style. Strongly sung choruses brighten the sonic scheme. Stephan Loges stands out as the creepily smooth oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whose 60th birthday party at Blenheim, another of the opera’s episodes, looked deeply uninviting. Having the BBC Concert Orchestra prerecorded flattened the sound and didn’t give the music its best chance. Yet managing to write a half-decent opera, cleverly staged by Stephen Medcalf with complex use of video and a good cast, is some achievement. New operas, even by professional composers, come far worse.