Who knows what Warren Buffett does when he’s not reading company reports? During the famous years when Anthony Bolton was manager of the Fidelity Special Situations fund, he said he found that writing music offered a “balance” in his life and, a few years later, the fruits of that experience. have now arrived on the market.
The first of The life and death of Alexander Litvinenko, with music by Bolton and libretto by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, was the latest offering from this summer’s Grange Park opera festival. Based on the life of the former FSB and KGB officer poisoned with polonium in 2006, he has some good things about him, but they don’t add up.
The story is potentially strong. Here’s a classic lyrical clash between public and private, high-stakes politics and small-scale domestic life, as Litvinenko’s involvement in Russia’s suppression of Chechen independence plays out against scenes written with sympathy from his family life (his widow, Marina, was closely involved with the production of Grange Park).
The two parts of the opera start well. The familiar image of an emaciated Litvinenko lying in a hospital bed is recreated on stage to music that exudes a subtle sense of hidden evil. A noisy re-enactment of the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis raises blood pressure.
Gradually, however, a deadly sense of stasis seeps into the opera. A long scene at the Litvinenko’s breakfast table gives rise to hemorrhagic tensions (as Wagner, on the other hand, was adept at shaping his “let’s tell-it-so-far” monologues). The second act is packed with variety – a cabaret-like number, a football hymn rousing the populace, an oligarchs party to deconstructed Tchaikovsky tracks. Eugene Onegin – but neither the music nor the narrative have enough traction. There is a conscientious television documentary inside this opera that is struggling to come out.
The Grange Park opera house put on a good show, however. Director Stephen Medcalf used a creative mix of projections. Adrian Dwyer and Rebecca Bottone plausibly resembled Litvinenko and his wife, and Olivia Ray sang forcefully as a journalist on the crusade Anna Politkovskaya. Stephen Barlow conducted an invisible orchestra prerecorded with a pencil, a strange decision in every way. ★★ ☆☆☆
At Opera Holland Park, an easier challenge was in store. Mascagni Amico Fritz is a confection as light as Italian verism has to offer, a simple sweet and young love story among the cherry trees.
To make its effect, it only requires a production without intervention and three good singers, who, basically, are present here. Julia Burbach’s production uses the facade of the crumbling Holland House as minimal decor. In the title role, Matteo Lippi exudes Italian vocal flair and Katie Bird sings quite well like her young love, Suzel. Paul Carey Jones adds character as Rabbi David and conductor Beatrice Venezi wield Italian ardor with a light touch. Opera Holland Park has made a name for itself with the Opera Verismo; it is heartwarming to see the company continue its good work. ★★★★ ☆
As of July 31 operahollandpark.com