The making of the opera La Mort d’Alexandre Litvinenko
Russian defector’s deadly poisoning turned into opera, approved by widow, says KIRSTY LANG
In the 15 years since Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned while drinking tea in a central London hotel, there have been many books, documentaries and a play based on his story. Now, for the first time, there is an opera about the former Russian KGB man whose harsh criticism of President Putin took his life. The life and death of Alexander Litvinenko has its world premiere later this month at the Grange Park Opera, located on the grounds of a 14th century country house nestled in the Surrey Hills.
“What happened to Sasha Litvinenko has all the makings of a good opera,” says composer Anthony Bolton, “A love affair, a politics of power, a betrayal and a murder.”
Bolton was inspired by Death of a dissident, written by Litvinenko’s widow Marina with Alexander Goldfarb. The love story between the married couple animates the opera. But in the background, geopolitics mingles with Litvinenko’s courageous act of betrayal. In November 1998, he publicly accused his Federal Security Service (FSB) superiors of corruption and of ordering the assassination of Russian oligarch and Putin critic Boris Berezovsky. Litvinenko was the first to invent the term “mafia state” and, in Putin’s eyes, that made him a traitor.
The opera opens with a projection of the now iconic image of Litvinenko lying in his hospital bed. Her hair fell out. His chest is covered with monitors. His gaunt face and his eyes that seem marked with pain look at the camera defiantly. Three days after the photograph was published in most national newspapers, Litvinenko died from acute radiation exposure. His body was so contaminated that he had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin.
But the former Russian agent had survived long enough to give British police plenty of details about his killers. He even wrote a deathbed speech pointing an accusing finger at Putin, excerpts of which are used in the libretto.
“Everyone remembers that last photo of him in the green NHS robe because it was really Moscow waving to Europe,” says Kit Hesketh-Harvey, who wrote the libretto. “It’s like Moscow is saying, ‘We can do this to you. You can kill someone on British soil, who cares. If it hadn’t been just the tea and the henchmen who killed him left a trail of comedic poison, half of London could have been wiped out ”.
The opening number sung by the choir is about polonium, the rare, highly radioactive and highly dangerous metal used to poison it. “It starts with some rather mysterious scary music. You hear a note played by a piccolo, then an oboe that sounds like a Geiger counter, ”says composer Bolton. “and then the choir starts singing on the polonium, ‘Rare, silvery gray, metaloid’… .a teaspoon can wipe out an entire city.” Later in the opera, the choir appears dressed in Hazmat suits after one of the killers drops his towel containing the polonium on the floor.
Several prominent critics of Kremlin policy – former spies, journalists, businessmen, lawyers and politicians – have been poisoned over the past two decades, including Sergei Skripal with the nerve agent Novichok at his home in Salisbury in 2018. More until recently, Russian dissident Alexander Navalny nearly succumbed to a nerve agent smeared on his underwear.
Kit Hesketh-Harvey says he wants the show to convey the urgency of responding to Russia’s actions. “Moscow says any enemy of the state can be killed anywhere in the world and that includes British citizens.”
What is remarkable about the Kremlin’s use of exotic poisons to eliminate its critics is the theatricality of these acts. The Russian secret service has a long history of covert assassinations made to look like suicides. The use of military grade nerve agents or radioactive material that can be traced back to a state actor is a very public way to kill someone. It’s almost as if the assassins want an audience for their dirty deeds. “There is something very opera about the way Putin gets rid of his victims,” says Hesketh-Harvey, “It’s melodramatic meanness, it’s pantomime – it’s not quite the Wizard of Oz but it has this resonance … “
Most of the opera takes place in the hospital where Litvinenko died or in his home in North London. The rest of the story is told in a series of flashbacks using archival footage. But not all is dark, says Hesketh-Harvey: “There is Sasha and Marina’s love for each other that has a Puccini aspect. It has always been the stuff of opera. Someone dies but love conquers all. Marina’s loyalty to him, her devotion to her and the beauty of the music tell us that even though the world is shit and people like Putin can get away with murdering people, we still have the power to love and do good ”.
Antony Bolton spent most of his life working in finance, but still wrote music and worked as a composer in his spare time. After finding out about Litvinenko’s biography in 2008, he approached Marina to buy the rights to the opera. He planned to write it when he retired, but then got one last job managing a fund in Hong Kong and the project was put on hold. The delay turned out to be fortunate because one of the big open questions was the riddle? And who ordered it?
By the time Bolton commissioned Kit Hesketh-Harvey to write the libretto in 2016, a public inquiry had finally taken place. It was something Marina Litvinenko had consistently pushed for over a decade. Through his persistence, the investigation revealed that Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, the two former Russian agents he had met for tea on the day of his death, were responsible for his murder and in all likelihood it was by order of Putin.
Prebble’s Excellent 2019 Play A very expensive poison, Litvinenko’s story is told like a dark comedy. Putin is a Bond villain who harangues audiences from the sidelines while the hapless Kremlin hitmen are a slapstick comedy duo (which is not far from real life considering they tried no not once but thrice to kill Litvinenko and left a trace of polonium across London in the process) The play also offers a compelling portrayal of Russian corruption and British reluctance to hold a public inquiry which appointed and humiliated the Kremlin. But Anthony Bolton took a different approach: “Mine is a tragic opera with sometimes a humorous moment. I want people to move ”. David Benedict, London critic of Variety, says that “Opera works
best when people express things that go beyond speech such as pain, terror, and grief, because music is very good at reaching that emotional truth. He points out that in the almost 400 years of European opera’s existence, it has always used political themes. Mozart’s Figaro wedding was almost banned before its premiere in Vienna. Written in 1778, a few years before the French Revolution, the play reflected growing discontent with the ruling class and was considered scandalous because it depicts servants taking over nobles.
Verdi provided the theme tunes for Italian unification. The operas of Brecht and Weil, Mahagonny and The Quart’s Opera, critiques of capitalism drew a large following to Weimar Berlin. that of Benjamin Britten Peter Grimes addresses the question of the relationship of the individual to society then, more recently, there was that of John Adams Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer.
Like many modern British composers, Anthony Bolton is heavily influenced by Benjamin Brittan, but he wanted to give his opera a Russian air, which is why there are musical quotes from Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff. “The main quote I use is that of Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin because it is one of my favorite operas but there is also the Chechen national anthem because it was involved in Chechnya, a Red Army marching song that I used and an anthem of the Moscow football, because when the killer came to London, his recovery was that he was coming to see a football match in the Emirates ”.
Marina Litvinenko was not involved in writing the libretto and Hesketh-Harvey purposely did not meet her until it was completed because he wanted his Marina scene to function as a dramatic character without being too much influenced by the real person.
“The first time we met was during a race and she was sitting alone in a row of seats and I was far away from staring at her with hot coals wondering what she would think. And then I saw a tear run down her cheek. She is still very raw and very vulnerable but very courageous. The great love of her life died before her, and she spared no effort to try to find out what happened to her and this is the story we tried to tell ”.
Kirsty Lang presents First row on Radio 4 and chairs the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art.