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.