At first glance, it could be a scene from any classic opera. A grieving lover tearfully lamenting her murdered partner, vowing to bring his killers to justice. But rather than a scene from 19th century Italian literature, what’s taking place on stage has its roots in more recent events: north London in late 2006. The woman in question is very much still alive — and still active too. Marina Litvinenko was in her early thirties when she moved to London to live in exile with her husband — the man she calls Sasha. How does she describe her husband’s murder? ‘A tragedy,’ she says, putting it rather mildly.
‘It’s got all the ingredients for a good opera — power, politics, love, betrayal and murder,’ says Anthony Bolton, a friend of Marina and the man who first had the idea of putting the Litvinenko story onto the big stage. ‘At its heart is this tragic love story you often find in traditional opera. It’s heavyweight stuff, and of course it’s all true too.’ He realized all this, he says, when he read Marina’s memoir, not long after the poisoning. In some ways, it was a stroke of luck for Bolton. After a four-decade career in the City, the celebrated money-man (he grew Fidelity’s Special Solution fund some 14,000 percent in 30 years) had been longing to pivot back to his old university passion: opera. Now he’d found the perfect excuse.
When we speak on the telephone, Bolton is tantalizingly close to seeing it come to fruition. ‘We had the first rehearsal last night,’ he says — with obvious joy in his voice. ‘It was the first time I heard it properly.’ A slightly humbling moment, he confesses, having spent the best of a decade working on it. In that time, he’s had to contend with numerous big events, seemingly conspiring to make his subject matter ever more complex. From a second deadly poisoning on UK soil (this time resulting in the death of a British citizen) to the publication of a government-backed inquiry officially naming Litvinenko’s killers, the events of November 2006 have never been too far from the headlines. Then, in 2019, came a slightly different twist, as the Litvinenko story became the subject of a big West End play. That must have been at least slightly annoying? ‘I really liked the play — even if I didn’t actually want to,’ he laughs. In any event, he says, there are compelling artistic reasons for turning the story into an opera too. ‘I just think the way opera connects with our emotions is very different from all other art forms,’ he says.
It’s a suitably rich medium, too, for a character as complex as Alexander Litvinenko. ‘Obviously he wasn’t totally pure himself,’ says Bolton — alluding to Litvinenko’s years of loyal service in Russia’s notoriously shadowy secret services. He’s quick to add, though, that he wants his audience to feel sympathy towards Litvinenko. ‘I want them to be moved by this story. And I hope he comes across as a real person – with strengths and weaknesses.’
As for Marina Litvinenko herself, she’s still living in Britain, she hopes to attend one of the initial performances. ‘I was quite surprised when Anthony first approached me about the project,’ she says. ‘For me, it was never a story about me and Sasha. It was about Russia, and what’s happening to Russia.’ In the years since her husband’s murder, Litvinenko has reinvented herself as a tireless campaigner against the ‘mafia state’ that she says has poisoned the country she still loves. She was instrumental, of course, in pressuring the British government to finally order an inquiry into the killing — but she hasn’t stopped there. She’s currently campaigning on behalf of Alexei Navalny: the imprisoned opposition activist who claims to have been tortured at Putin’s behest. She remains committed, as you might expect, to ensuring the facts of the poisoning case are disseminated as widely as possible. She speaks with relief at the conclusions of the inquiry, which established that Vladimir Putin most likely ordered the attack. Though she is concerned that Britain hasn’t come to terms with its significance. ‘There is still so much Russian money around the British establishment,’ she says.
Bolton confesses that — until recently — his main interest in Russia was musical. In writing The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko, he says, he deliberately paid tribute to numerous Russian composers, echoing their music in his work. He’s particularly proud of one scene which plays poignantly on the much-loved letter scene in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. ‘It’s one of my favorite ever operas,’ he says. There are other musical cameos too: with the Chechnyan national anthem (suitably-titled ‘Death or Freedom’) and a Moscow soccer terrace song both featuring. The latter, he says, is a riff on the cover story used by the two hitmen upon arriving at Heathrow: that they were there to watch a Champions League match. The former, meanwhile, relates to the formative role that Chechnya (and the Kremlin’s brutal war of aggression there) played in Litvinenko’s fateful disillusionment with his one-time paymasters. The opening marks a huge personal milestone for Bolton: finally completing his transition from City grandee to opera composer. All being well, he says, he intends to start work on a second opera before long. As for Marina Litvinenko, she’s planning her next step too: getting back to her lawsuit against the Russian government in the ECHR. It’s been a busy 15 years: and it doesn’t stop here.
The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko opened at Grange Park Opera on Tuesday July 13. This article was originally published on Spectator Life.