Manchester Theatre Awards

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Ravi Shankar's Sukanya

Music Ravi Shankar, Librettist Amit Chadhuri
Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Curve
14 May 2017

To say that Sukanya is Ravi Shankar’s only opera, while true, gives a misleading impression of his talent and influence on world music. Knowing he began writing it in the eighth decade of his life tells us more about his enthusiasm for music and his constant desire to find new ways to express this.

It was to be his final work, and one can only imagine the weight of that in the hands of David Murphy, who completed the opera alongside Shankar’s daughter, Anoushka. Almost five years after Shankar’s death Murphy conducts the London Philharmonic for the opera’s premiere performances – the second of which is at The Lowry, Salford.

It feels like a true celebration, both of a life and of a true fusion of West and Eastern traditions. It opens with a solo sitar, the instrument for which Shankar was best known. Hearing Parimal Sadaphal play is probably as close as we’ll get to experiencing how Shankar might have interpreted it, given that he was taught by Shankar himself from the age of seven.

Sadaphal sits to one side of the foot of a wide staircase that opens to raised platform. At the other side sits Ashwani Shankar on the shehnai, an Indian instrument, like an oboe. The orchestra is seated on the stage and includes musicians playing the tabla, mridangam and ghatam percussion.

The scene is finally set using projections on to a backcloth, which take us from a night sky to a jungle, a palace and at one point we are in a room with photos of the maestro himself on the wall. Five classical Indian dancers, wearing ghungrus foot bells and five singers tell the story, supported the BBC singers chorus on both sides of the platform.

Visually there is a lot going on. At first it feels like the five singers are having to battle for attention. But, perhaps because in essence it is a simple static scene, the atmosphere settles quickly and the overwhelming sense is one of space and rest. There are some wonderfully peaceful moments in the music as well as moments of vibrancy and joy.

The story is based on a tale taken from an ancient Sanskrit, Mahābhārata. It tells of a young princess, Sukanya, whose destiny leads her to marry an old sage, Chyavana she finds in the woods, and her love is such that it restores both his youth and the sight to his bleeding eyes.

Shankar, who was 30 years older than his widow Sukanya, is said to have seen a connection between this ancient myth and his own life. So, the opera is named after his widow and it is as much a love letter to her as it is to his music.

The story itself is stretched to its limits, and there is one scene where Chyavana (Alok Kumar) sings to Sukanya (Susanna Hurrell) about the differences between Eastern and Western music, where we feel we’re being lectured to rather than entertained.

On the whole, this mythical love story is presented with a lightness of touch. The passion created is for the music and Shankar’s legacy is a genuine fusion of Eastern and Western traditions that feels a natural harmony.

Reviewer: Carmel Thomason


Comment by Robert Beale

Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya is a hybrid theatre piece, combining the soundworld of operatically trained singers, a large orchestra and the technical resources of a big theatre with the language of Indian classical music and Kathak dance.

Based on a story from the Mahābhārata of a princess who disturbs a holy man so deep in meditation that ants move harmlessly over him - but she destroys his sight in the process, marries him and comes to see more in his sightless soul than any rival can create, even by a magical transformation. It’s ultimately a hymn to genuine love.

Shankar didn’t finish the piece, and his long-time collaborator on other western-eastern musical projects, David Murphy, has completed it and orchestrated the score – much of which is played by a (to us) conventional orchestra but with the addition of sitar, shenai, tabla and other Indian percussion.

Visually it’s more lavish than the stills might suggest, as the ‘backcloth’ is a patterned screen on which moving images are projected, and the light and colour they create are an important part of what you see. The orchestra (the London Philharmonic)., chorus (BBC Singers) and other musicians are all on stage (with the conductor rather obtrusively, but necessarily, placed front centre), so steps and a platform are really all the set there is, and the actors and dancers move within the limits set, or else on the wide but shallow strip available front of stage.

With costuming, lighting and sound all expertly handled, the impact of Suba Das’s production is still considerable, and in addition there’s the skill and inventiveness embodied in the music. Wisely, the subtle microtonally decorative world of the sitar and shenai are kept audibly insulated from the bigger, heavier sounds of the orchestra – and yet the latter is Indian, too, with its lines built on single scales and long-held drones and its rhythms very cleverly integrated with those of the Indian tradition.

The singers were all effective and some of outstanding quality, including Susanna Hurrell (Sukanya) and Njabulo Madlal (one of the two ‘Aswini Twins’, the slightly sinister clowns of the scenario). The dancers were highly accomplished, especially Rukmini Vijayakumar, and the choreography credit to Aakash Odedra (who also performs) is an indication of pedigree there.

As an attempt at a new kind of music theatre, it has its negative side. The text, by Amit Chaudhuri, occasionally lurches into bathos or crudity. There is no drama, as usually understood, in the slow-moving plot, except the often-repeated mantra, ‘Who can foresee the outcome?’ The music falls into numbers, each anchored in its scale, although there is variety and tension-making inside those frameworks.

One aspect I thought weakened the whole construction was the episode early in the second half when Chyavana, the holy man, tells his bride his story of learning to be a musician when he was young, and explains how Indian and Western music differ. This is accompanied by projection images of Ravi Shankar himself – presumably it’s adapted from his own memoirs and thinking, but it seems an oddly didactic interpolation in a story to which it’s really unrelated.

Maybe it’s there to fill things out a bit. But the show doesn’t drag, and it’s all over inside two hours including an interval, so you couldn’t say it was stretched to Wagnerian proportions. Bravo for that.