Anti-mafia whistleblowers have a short life expectancy, shortest of all in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Alexander “Sasha” Litvinenko, the FSB agent who coined the phrase “mafia state”, died in a London hospital bed in 2006, victim of radiation poisoning by polonium-210. A public enquiry in 2016 held that the murder was most probably carried out with the approval of Putin.

Adrian Dwyer (Sasha)
© Marc Brenner

Taken by the “power, politics, betrayal, love, jeopardy” in Litvinenko’s story, composer Anthony Bolton and librettist Kit Hesketh-Harvey have turned it into an opera, The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko, whose world premiere was given yesterday at Grange Park Opera. Heavily supported by Litvinenko’s widow Marina, it’s an unashamed polemic against the Putin regime which takes the story from Sasha’s experience in Chechnya, which first opens his eyes to criminal activity within the FSB (the successor to the KGB), through his friendship with the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, another Putin critic who subsequently died in mysterious circumstances, to his meeting with his killer Lugovoy and subsequent death in hospital, along with the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and friend of Marina who was murdered two months before Sasha. The couple’s love, family life and exile is woven into the political story.

The opera opens with Sasha on his deathbed and skips through a series of flashbacks: we’re looking at a canvas in space-time on which the artist paints disconnected parts which gradually come together to form the whole picture. By the end of Act 1, I was convinced that we had a masterpiece on our hands; Act 2, sadly, didn’t live up to that promise.

Stephan Loges (Boris Berezovsky)
© Marc Brenner

Bolton’s music is engaging throughout. It’s eclectic, varied and pleasant to listen to, with passages of intense lyrical beauty, plenty of thrilling movie-score-like elements, deft pastiches of Russian church music or marching songs, with varying sized chunks of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin dropped in for good measure. It’s well performed by Stephen Barlow and the BBC Concert Orchestra, but not, sadly, live. Barlow is in the pit to conduct the singers but the orchestra is pre-recorded and the sound often feels compressed compared to the live experience we would have expected in non-Covid times.

The staging works superbly: designer Jamie Vartan gives us a single large set with a few moving parts, which is transformed into many different locations by videos by Will Duke, supplemented by live footage of the performers. The video works exceptionally well: the quality is excellent and we’re clearly signposted as to where we are in a story that never degenerates into the tangled mess that it could have done. The cast and chorus go through a dizzying number of costume changes – Chechen freedom fighters, hospital workers, Russian troops, football fans, lab operators in noddy suits – and it’s a credit to director Stephen Medcalf that the changes never seem forced or rushed. Acting performances from everyone remain strong through the highly fragmented storytelling.

Olivia Ray (Anna Politkovskaya) and chorus
© Marc Brenner

The voices are unimpeachable. Adrian Dwyer gives us excellent diction in a light, clear tenor that pulls off the unlikely trick of making an FSB hard man into a loveable creature – albeit with plenty of reserves of inner strength. Rebecca Bottone’s equally clear soprano makes the best of Bolton’s lyrical moments as Marina and Stephan Loges is gravelly and urbane as Berezovsky. Smaller roles are all up to a high quality.

Bolton and Hesketh-Harvey very much defy the usual advice that an opera should show, not tell. In the vast majority of the piece, we hear characters relating events rather than seeing them unfold in front of us (a spectacular exception is the Chechen siege of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre). For the whole of Act 1, it all works extremely well; the vividness of the video footage fills in the “show” part as the characters sing the “tell”, with the pace of events carrying us through with high adrenalin levels. But the adrenalin level dipped fearfully in Act 2. There were still some important parts of the picture to be filled in – the head of the KGB whitewashing Sasha’s dossier, the introduction of the assassin Lugovoy, Sasha’s reckless abandon in attacking Putin. But the second half felt awfully drawn out. The clearest example of this was the ending. Sasha’s death is painted in bold colours with a powerful climax – but we are then made to listen to a lengthy epilogue of Marina telling us what a lovely man he was and why she loved him. Bolton reserves some of his most gorgeously lyrical music for this and Bottone sings it beautifully, but the drama is destroyed, with an account of politically explosive events subordinated to a banal everyday love story.

You don’t usually get world premieres in country house opera seasons, so hats off to Grange Park Opera for bringing The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko to us. A few cuts in Act 2 could turn it into a work of real genius.