Wednesday 26 February 2020

All the ingredients of a good opera: Anthony Bolton's The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko

Alexander Litvinenko in 2002
Alexander Litvinenko in 2002
When composer Anthony Bolton read Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB, the book by Alex Goldfarb and Alexander Litvinenko's widow Marina about the extraordinary poisoning of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, Bolton immediately thought that it had all the ingredients of a good opera: power, politics, betrayal, love, jeopardy. Bolton managed to get Wasfi Kani of Grange Park Opera and director Stephen Medcalf on board, and through them librettist Kit Hesketh-Harvey. The results are to be seen at Grange Park Opera, Surrey in July this year when Stephen Medcalf's production of Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-Harvey's The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko debuts (16 & 18 July 2020) with Stephen Barlow conducting a cast including Adrian Dwyer, Rebecca Bottone, Andrew Slater, Olivia Ray, Andrew Watts and Edmund Danon.

It is a full-scale opera, two acts with seven solo roles, chorus and full orchestra. Hesketh-Harvey, perhaps best known for his cabaret career but also his translations and opera libretti, has written a libretto (some of it evidently in rhyme) based on Goldfarb and Livtinenko's book, and Bolton's opera uses the traditional layout of scenes and arias. On Monday, we were given a sneak preview of the opera when Bolton talked about it and Olivia Ray, Lorena Paz and Xaver Hetherington sang scenes from the opera, accompanied by Erika Gundesen.

It was a chance to have a first listen to Bolton's music, tonal but complex, often highly romantic; the piece also uses references to Russian music ranging from a Red Army marching song and a Russian football anthem, to music from Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Composer Anthony Bolton has had an interesting career, whilst reading Engineering at Cambridge he studied composition with Nicholas Maw and later with Colin Matthews and Julian Anderson. But the majority of Bolton's working life has been devoted to finance, as a major investment fund manager. His music includes the anthem, Children of Earth, written for the Save the Children Anniversary at St Paul's Cathedral, A Garland of Carols (for upper voices and harp) premiered at St Paul's in 2006, and the orchestral suite The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He describes his new opera as 'by far the biggest thing he's done'.

Also, at the event on Monday was Litvinenko's widow Marina who, when the opera premieres in July, will have the strange experience of seeing herself portrayed on stage. But Marina has already had this experience, as Lucy Prebble's play A Very Expensive Poison which debuted at the Old Vic last year, similarly dramatised the events.

Marina welcomes any such exposure as she feels that the play and the opera help to bring the events into the public eye and give a kind of justice. Marina has been fighting for justice since the events of 2006, only getting a public enquiry after 10 years and still the probable perpetrators of the poisoning have not been extradited from Russia.

Quite what the Russian authorities (evidently complicit in Litvinenko's music) will make of the opera is anyone's guess, but you feel that opera cannot help but have resonance in Russia. Certainly the work brings a strange contemporary twist to the genre of 'CNN Opera', opera created out of contemporary new events, which originated with John Adams' Nixon in China.

Tickets for Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-Harvey's The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko go on sale on 3 March 2020 at the Grange Park Opera website.

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