First things first: despite a plot consisting of agonised letter-based love affairs between luminary Victorian poets, and being called Possession!, this opera is not a dramatisation of A.S. Byatt’s excellent novel of the same name. So, A.S. Byatt fans, don’t get your hopes up: your time will be much better spent watching Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (much more relevant to Byatt’s work). Meanwhile, devotees of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning may find this interesting, though I wouldn’t raise your hopes too far either. Possession! is a brilliantly elegant idea for an opera, with commendable aesthetic intentions to dramatise the Brownings’ tragically short marriage alongside the principled rejection of love by the South African feminist Olive Schreiner. Unfortunately, it’s a good deal stronger in its theory than in its execution.

Two people, a man (tenor Ed Saklatvala) and a woman (soprano Danae Eleni), sit surrounded by a sea of crumpled paper, many of which are sheets of musical manuscript. She is at a desk, writing; he sits in his chair, lost in thought. They each occasionally stand up to sing, addressing each other, yet facing out towards the audience. At times of great emotional turmoil, the man drops his glasses on the floor (initially, I thought this was a simple accident, but it gradually appeared to be a stage action, as it was repeated at certain moments). Then, some time later, they stop singing, and it is over. We can go.

Danae Eleni and Ed Saklatvala © Claire Shovelton
Danae Eleni and Ed Saklatvala
© Claire Shovelton

Three problems are immediately evident: firstly, despite a strong visual opening, this production is so static as to be entirely pancake-flat in terms of tension and narrative drive. We are therefore forced to turn, secondly, to the vocal line alone, for psychological drama in lieu of actual drama: but, as the soprano and tenor’s voices cross each other often, without surtitles, and with diction occasionally slurring, it’s often hard to understand what they are saying. Thirdly, the few words we do get to hear clearly are disappointingly uninspiring: lines like the toe-curling “At the age of sixty, I found my sexuality”, the semi-grammatical “I feel so loving to you /You are not well” and the deathly dull “Your heart is so sore” are hardly worthy of the exquisite vocal firepower of the Brownings. Roland Reynolds (librettist and director) may well have mined their love letters and used verbatim quotes: as a passionate fan of both Robert and Elizabeth, all I can say is there must have been better sentences to lift into song than these turgid, hidebound phrases. Saklatvala and Eleni both give committed performances in which Saklatvala’s acting impresses, while Eleni’s voice is warm and smooth; but despite their excellent efforts, they cannot save the piece from its own problems.

The only consolation is Alexander Campkin’s instrumental accompaniment, a beautifully long and sinuous twisting of cello (Sacha McCulloch), bass viol (Poppy Walshaw) and treble viol (Liam Byrne), each played exquisitely. The three instruments (all beautiful objects in their own right) form the backdrop to the action, and in such skilful hands they really are a delight to hear.

The original idea was good. The tragedy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s early death, and her passionate love for Robert Browning, is a fine subject: this tragedy is intended to be matched by the self-abnegation of Olive Schreiner (author of The Story of an African Farm), who decided that her feminism prevented her from consummating her love for Havelock Ellis (though she did in fact go on to marry another man, Samuel Cronwright). Unfortunately, despite strong instrumentation and committed singing, it just doesn’t quite work in practice, and remains permanently hamstrung by its flat production. We leave this opera, therefore, an extremely long way from understanding “Infinite passion, and the pain /Of finite hearts that yearn.” - Robert Browning, Two in the Campagna

**111