Alexander Litvinenko lies in a London hospital, dying of polonium poisoning. That photograph from 2006 haunts the memory: the medical robe, the electronic monitors, Litvinenko’s accusing gaze and bald, ravaged head. But in case we needed reminding, Grange Park Opera handed out copies of Death of a Dissident, the account of the crime by Litvinenko’s widow Marina, and the principal source for Anthony Bolton and Kit Hesketh-Harvey’s new opera The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko. Minutes later, a hospital bed rolled on stage replicating that exact image. And then Litvinenko — the tenor Adrian Dwyer — opened his mouth and started to sing.
Opera plays a high-stakes game with dramatic realism at the best of times, but this was startlingly upfront. One gasp of distaste — one incredulous snigger — and the whole thing could have collapsed into Springtime for Putin. Ten minutes in, as balaclava-clad, gun-toting extras stormed the auditorium in a recreation of the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, Bolton and his director Stephen Medcalf doubled down. If they could get away with this, the show was basically home. A chorus line of intensive-care medics? A countertenor KGB chief? A flashback narrative grounded in the visual grammar of blockbuster cinema? Well, why not?
Medcalf makes it work. He cuts smartly between scenes with projected datelines straight out of an action movie (‘Boris Berezovsky’s Goth Party, Blenheim Palace’ was one corker), while a sinister pulse of blue-green polonium light traces relentlessly across Jamie Vartan and Will Duke’s Scandi-noirish designs. It still feels episodic and overlong — Act Two has at least two endings too many — but Medcalf tells the story as clearly as possible, leaving space for Bolton’s score to do its work.
And? Bolton has clearly saturated himself in Russian music, and he throws it all at Litvinenko. John Adams’s Doctor Atomic is a reference point for the opening chorus (‘Polonium!’), as metallic horns and eerily bleeping woodwinds evoke the inhuman menace at the centre of the drama. Elsewhere, Bolton paraphrases that ubiquitous Shostakovich jazz waltz, and coolly dismembers the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. There’s also a cheeky Brecht-Weill moment when assassin Andrei Lugovoy (Edmund Danon) goes full Mack the Knife. All highly effective; but Litvinenko is at its most potent in the domestic scenes between Litvinenko and his wife (Rebecca Bottone, bright-toned and tremulous with emotion), where Bolton’s string writing wells up in supercharged clusters, creating a mood of sadness that irradiates the score.
It might have been good to have had more of that storyline; more, too of Olivia Ray’s dignified, compassionate singing as the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Still, disjointed plots, uncomfortable-sounding vocal writing and underwritten secondary characters are hardly unknown in the operatic canon. Rather Bolton’s angry emotional commitment than the slick proficiency of, say, Brett Dean’sHamlet. The cast were excellent, even though they were singing — and this practice needs to stop — to a pre-recorded soundtrack. (The Covid excuse won’t wash: if a full string section is essential, better to wait until it’s physically possible.)
So why did it still feel so indigestible? Is it really too soon to set this story to music, with Litvinenko’s widow present in the audience? Possibly it was the jokey pre-show pep talk from Grange Park’s founder Wasfi Kani (Lugovoy — ‘he’s the baddie’, explained Kani — had personally denounced the production from Moscow). Or perhaps it was the tea tent selling ‘Orange Polonium’ cake at the interval. There’s an irreducible core of tweeness at the heart of English country house opera that sits uncomfortably with scenes of political prisoners being tortured with electrodes. I had the chocolate sponge.
Opera Holland Park’s new The Cunning Little Vixen, meanwhile, is a very urban fox indeed. Stephen Barlow’s production has Vixen Sharp-Ears raiding wheelie bins and stealing Pret sandwiches, and Jennifer France — a dazzling Zerbinetta for OHP a couple of seasons back — plays her with brilliant, irrepressible physicality. Grant Doyle is a lovably blunt Forester in khaki shorts, with a wide-grained, oaky voice. The chorus are municipal gardeners, and the children of the forest ecosystem run around in paper masks; as guileless and delightful as a primary school carnival. Janacek’s score tumbles out of Jessica Cottis’s scaled-down orchestra with colours flashing and rhythms bristling.
It’s life-affirming and unsentimental; only Janacek, surely, could shoot his furry heroine dead and simply move straight on, optimism and energy undimmed. That’s the one point at which a metropolitan Vixenstumbles: Harasta the poacher (Ashley Riches) pulls a pistol from his anorak, turning Janacek’s demonstration of the eternal cycle of rural life into a disturbing urban gun-crime. OHP missed a trick by not having him come on in a kimono with a baseball bat, which I understand is the approved way of despatching foxes in progressive London circles.
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