As Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine pushes the Doomsday Clock one click closer to midnight, the timing could not have been better for the concert premiere of Arkhipov, a new opera by composer Peter Knell and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann that focuses on the flash-point confrontation between a Russian submarine and the American Navy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. A desperate saga of men at sea in times of war, it blends the aura of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd with the sum-of-all-fears brinksmanship of The Hunt for Red October.
While we all know the outcome of President Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba after the discovery of Russian missile sites, what is widely unknown is the role played by the Russian submarine group commander, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, whose act of defiance and coolheaded leadership under immense pressure averted nuclear Armageddon.
According to Knell, it was an article about Arkhipov in a December 2016 issue of The New Yorker, “World War III, by Mistake” by Eric Schlosser, that inspired the creation of the opera.
Friday’s performance (the first of two), presented by Jacaranda Music in collaboration with the Wende Museum and Center Theatre Group, took place at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It featured a cast of 10 singers led by the authoritative baritone of Edward Parks III as Arkhipov. The dark atonal score (perhaps meant to reflect the dominant musical school of the early 1960s) was performed by 15 members of the Jacaranda Chamber Ensemble conducted by Daniela Candillari.
The cast of singer/sailors stood at music stands that were raised and lowered as they sang, like so many periscopes. The “stage” direction, which was limited mostly to hand gestures, body language, and piercing glares, was overseen by Elkhanah Pulitzer. A future full staging is somewhere in the works. It will certainly add historical detail and a much-needed atmosphere of mounting tension and submarine claustrophobia.
As the opera begins, Knell’s orchestration of shadowy currents in the low strings, bass trombone, and bassoon captures the moment B-59 left the fog-shrouded submarine pens at Sayda Bay at 4 a.m. on Oct. 1, 1962, and sank beneath the waves. Neither the boat’s captain, Vitali Savitsky (sung with resounding presence by bass David Leigh), sub-group commander Arkhipov (who was the senior officer on board), nor the crew had any idea of the perilous waters they were sailing into.
Throughout the opera, the events of 1962 are juxtaposed with an interrogation of Arkhipov’s wife Olga (mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner), which is being conducted years later. Her presence provides a contrasting female voice, as well as a historical (and emotional) perspective on the ill treatment Arkhipov received from the Soviet government.
The first act is devoted to the long Atlantic crossing toward Cuba. Knell’s orchestration and Fleischmann’s depiction of life on the ship present onboard tensions while also evoking a Brittenesque sense of murky depths, the sparkling night sky, stinging spray, and a massive storm at sea.
There is also the sense of foreboding as we discover that Arkhipov is haunted by the ghosts of his previous command — the ill-fated Soviet submarine K-19 that suffered a near cataclysmic meltdown of its reactor core, resulting in several horrible deaths and massive exposure to radiation. The terrible conditions on the sub and Arkhipov’s decision-making under extreme pressure made him a hero of the Soviet Union. “I saw hell,” he confides. The event was dramatized by Hollywood in the 2002 film K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.
One of the most fascinating elements that Knell and Fleischmann introduce is the character of the Special Weapons Officer (sung with complex emotionality by countertenor Daniel Moody). Both his presence on the ship as a civilian and his unique vocal range set him apart from the crew. They verbally attack and haze him for his apparent homosexuality, lack of seamanship, and constant isolation spent guarding the ship’s ultrasecret “Special Weapon” —a torpedo tipped with a 10-kiloton nuclear warhead, roughly equivalent to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. This strange (almost sexual) relationship between the Weapons Officer and his weapon provides a most intriguing dramatic element.
When B-59 arrives at its destination, the presence of the U.S. Navy forces the crew to remain submerged for days at a time in the warm waters off Cuba. Unable to surface and recharge its electrical system, the ship’s air filtration is lost, along with its food refrigeration. Eventually the temperature inside the ship climbs to 130 degrees.
Even more dangerous is the loss of radio communication. Messages that are received are sporadic, inconclusive, and often interrupted by static, represented by a buzzing in the strings. The real crisis begins when the ship is depth-charged. Is the crew under attack, or is this an attempt the make them surface? Has World War III begun?
Chaos ensues as Savitsky gives the order to load and fire the “Special Weapon.” The order, however, requires agreement from the ship’s zampolit officer (a silent role played by J. Ed Araiza) and Arkhipov. Arkhipov refuses to comply. Exerting his authority as the sub-group commander, he orders the ship to surface, which it did, averting World War III.
At this point Arkhipov is very much a work in progress with real potential. One hopes that a situation arises when the opera can surface at full strength.