In researching the origin of his wife's name, Ravi Shankar discovered the tale of Sukanya in the Sanskrit epic Mahãbhãrata. Seeing the tale’s potential for the stage, he began composing his first opera in his eighties. Sadly, he passed away in 2012 and never saw it performed. Thankfully, his friend and musical collaborator David Murphy completed the unfinished arrangements. It was fitting that Murphy conducted the work, leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he has previously premiered and recorded Shankar’s symphony. 

Sanjukta Sinha and Aakash Odedra © ROH | Bill Cooper
Sanjukta Sinha and Aakash Odedra
© ROH | Bill Cooper

It is easy to see why Shankar saw the operatic potential for Sukanya. It is a story of how two uncouth demi-gods, the Ashwini Twins, are transported through time and space by a goddess in order to witness human love. That love is between a young princess and an elderly sage, Chyavana, who she unwittingly blinds. Her father, sympathetic to the sage’s suffering, gives his daughter to Chyavana in marriage. Despite his disablilty and the great age difference between them Sukanya falls in love with Chyavana. The Ashwini Twins, enamoured with Sukanya’s beauty, fail to understand why she would rather be with a human and not demi-gods like themselves. Consequently, they put her to the test. To cut a long story short, she passes the test by choosing her husband over them. As part of the test he miraculously regains his youth and his sight, and all ends well.

The music was a delightful fusion of Eastern and Western traditions. It began with a brilliant sitar alap introduction by Parimal Sadaphal that immediately located the story in the ancient Indian temple of the goddess, and was joined by the soulful breath of Ashwani Shankar’s entrancing Shehnai to establish the musical themes of the opera (in much the same way as an overture). The orchestral arrangements were beautifully crafted, almost unobtrusive at times, blending in with the eastern themes and then seamlessly emerging out of them with power and depth. There were vocal fusions too, with traditional classical projection from the main characters, but at times allowing some feverish konnakol (a form of vocal percussion) singing to rhythmically enhance the tabla. The western opera styles in the work owe more to Bernstein and Carl Orff than Puccini or Verdi. They are somewhat dance-focussed with strong percussion and brass, though at the end of the first act was a lovely choral melody featuring the BBC Singers alongside the solo performers.

Alok Kumar (Chyavana) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Alok Kumar (Chyavana)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Alongside the Indian and orchestral musicians and singers were a small cadre of dancers helping to drive the narrative. I was particularly impressed by the unnamed goddess of the temple, who leapt barefoot around stage like she weighed no more than a packet of crisps. The dancing went down particularly well when accompanied by a high-tempo tabla and konnakol musical passage in the second act. The konnakol, in fact, was performed at a mind-blowing and highly entertaining pace.

In terms of production, the direction and staging was simple. The orchestra were on stage with the performers rather than in a pit and much had to be worked around them. A simple staircase in mock stone with a curtain backdrop served as the entrance to the temple, a viewing platform for the Ashwani Twins to observe human interactions, and also to provide somewhere for the BBC Singers to stand. While the staging was simple, it was effective. This was thanks to the superb lighting a visual effects for which director Suba Das and lighting designer Matt Haskins were responsible. These effects clearly assisted the narrative, and did so without the need for much else in way of set, stage, props or costume.

While convinced by the lighting and generally pleased with the production value, I am ambiguous about the libretto. At times it was impressive, expressive and poetic. At other times I found it rather too clunky. It struck me as odd that, in a scene where Chyavana enchants Sukanya with his cultural sensitivity by explaining the differences between Indian and Western music, his explanation of the mind-colouring poetry of the raag sounded somewhat functional and dispassionate. 

Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza (Aswini Twins) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza (Aswini Twins)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The performances of all cast and musicians were excellent. Susanna Hurrell was impressive both vocally and in her stage presence, and Alok Kumar gave a strong account of himself as Chyavana. Keel Watson, playing Sukanya’s father King Sharyaati, also impressed with clear diction in his resonant bass-baritone voice. The London Philharmonic Orchestra were faultless. David Murphy did a tremendous job of fusing the two musical traditions together in his arrangements and his conducting was first class.

I thoroughly enjoyed this opera, though I found it more entertaining than moving. Being based on a fusion of two divergent musical traditions it has something new and vibrant for the opera scene without being overly experimental. The fusion seemed natural, unforced. I think the reason it worked so well was in the quality of the compositions and arrangements, a quality matched by the performance itself.