Ravi Shankar’s Fascinating Sukanya

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravi Shankar – Sukanya (completed David Murphy/Anoushka Shankar, world premiere run, semi-staged): Soloists; Aakash Odedra Company (Rukmini Vijahakumar, Sanjukta Sinha, Gauri Diwakar, Gaurav Ghatti, dancers); Pirasanna Thevarajah (ghatam, morsing, mrindangam, konnokol); Rajkumar Misra (tabla); Parimal Sadaphal (sitar); Ashwani Shankar (shehnai); M. Balachandar (mrindangam, konnokol); BBC Singers; London Philharmonic Orchestra / David Murphy (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.5.2017. (CC)

Susanna Hurrell (soprano) – Sukanya
Alok Kumar (tenor) – Chyvana
Keel Watson (bass-baritone) – King Sharyaati
Njabulo Madlala (baritone) – Twin 1
Michel de Souza (baritone)  – Aswini Twin 2
Eleanor Minney (mezzo) –  Sukanya’s friend

Libretto – Amit Chaudhuri
Director – Suba Das
Production – 59 Productions
Lighting – Matt Haskins

This is the opera which Ravi Shankar was working on at the time of his death. The completion is by his daughter, Anoushka Shankar, and David Murphy (who in fact conducted the World Premiere of Shankar’s Symphony with the LPO in 2010 and is a long-time collaborator). Tonight’s performance was part of a run that began on May 12 at The Curve in Leicester with the World Premiere. This production is the result of a collaboration between The Curve, Leicester, the London Philharmonic and the Royal Opera.

The work sets out to explore relationships between the musical traditions of the East and the West, yet remains firmly within the bounds of its Indian heritage. Inspired by an exploration of the origins of his third wife’s name, Sukanya, Shankar set the story of the young Princess of that name. The story concerns Sukanya’s marriage to the older, religious sage Cyavana, her wooing by two demi-gods, and a test in which the demi-gods shapeshift Chyavana into a third twin, leading Sukanya to identify the correct partner by tuning into her heart. In the process, Shankar gives an explanation through the libretto and his music of how the basics of Indian music work and the contrast to Western music; this actually grows into fascinating listening.

The members of the orchestra are split into two, on different sides of the front of the stage. The sitar and the shehnai (the latter a harsh-sounding Indian oboe) sit isolated, again separated left and right; dances are often performed at the very front of the stage. Two staircases link each side of the stage to a central platform itself with stairs downwards. The projected scenery, often beautifully and always impeccably managed, takes over the backdrop.

The text, heard mainly in English, consists of verses from the Sanskrit Mahābhārata but also references T. S. Eliot, Tagore and Shakespeare. Curve associate director Suba Das’ direction ensures the semi-staging is highly effective. Shankar, it is important to realise, does not aim at any sort of “fusion”; the work’s basis is impeccably and undeniably Indian, despite its clear Western references, which instead act as Western guests, welcome to co-habit and share the rent. Strings often are asked to perform fast lines in octaves; a sitar improvisation, impeccably given by Parimal Sadaphal, opens the evening. Konnakol singing (hyper-rapid syllabic singing, as if in imitation of an instrument) is an impressive part of the experience. Against this is the wonderfully pure, radiant soprano of English singer Susanna Hurrell, who takes this opportunity in the limelight perfectly (she returns to the Royal Opera next season to sing Micaëla in Carmen). There are arias and duets, and her way with Shankar’s melodic lines at these points is beautiful. Not all of the vocal writing is as memorable as in the set numbers, though, and much of the first part is, in terms of operatic line, unmemorable. Similarly, some of the orchestral writing – the depiction of daybreak via descending woodwind gestures in Act I, for example – might have had more magic to it.

The second part opens with a long, poignant shehnai melody (splendidly played by Ashwani Shankar). An interesting part of the writing is a long, high and floating cantus firmus melody against far more active Indian rhythms. The piece is a spectacle, of that there is no doubt, the dances given with power and panache. All credit to the 55-strong London Philharmonic for the tautness of their rhythms, so important here.

The dances might seem to evoke a Coplandish hoe-down at times, and at other times one might justifiably refer to Glass. The heady fragrance of Canteloube is there, too. Always, though, the timbres are as colourful as the costumes. The BBC Singers, dressed as if for a Western classical concert, excelled in each of their contributions.

Indian-born American tenor Alok Kumar is a strong Chyvana, while British bass-baritone Keel Watson is even more impressive in terms of sheer presence as King Sharyaati. The Aswini Twins are well taken by South African baritone Njabulo Madlala and Brazilian baritone Michel de Souza.

Although identifiably an opera, Shankar’s piece really invites the definition of “entertainment.” The referencing of Indian myth, so vibrant and evocative a part of Indian cinema also, results in an evening that is a brilliant idea, if of somewhat uneven, realisation.

Colin Clarke

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