The risk you take when fusing two musical traditions is that the magic inherent in each gets lost in synthesis. There was much to enjoy at Wednesday night’s semi-staging of Sukanya at the Southbank Centre, but best of both worlds it was not.

Alok Kumar (Chyavana) and Susanna Hurrell (Sukanya) © ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)
Alok Kumar (Chyavana) and Susanna Hurrell (Sukanya)
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)

Ravi Shankar’s only opera, completed posthumously by the British violinist-conductor David Murphy, is based on a tale from the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata. It opens with a slow introduction, or alap, on the sitar, in which the main musical themes are presented. A Bharata Natyam dancer in a red sari appears on stage; each delicate movement is captured by the bells on her leather anklet, or ghungroos: so far, so Indian. A haze of sustained strings gives us our first taste of East-West fusion. But the atmosphere is muddled by the entrance of a verismo baritone, his voice amplified through the hall’s speakers. It feels like callous intrusion into the carefully spun acoustic.

<i>Sukanya</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)
Sukanya
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)

This is the first in a sequence of mismatches that undermines any symbolic poignancy garnered by integrating the two sound worlds. The second is harder to get away from: Western classical music of the kind Murphy draws from is grounded in a sharply-defined set of intervals that fit like square pegs into the round holes of Indian microtonality. The laser-beam voices of Princess Sukanya (Susanna Hurrell) and Chyavan (Alok Kumar) ground uncomfortably against the fluid sitar playing of Parimal Sadaphal. Each are highly accomplished in their own right, but, when performing in unison fail to lift off. Shankar himself insisted the cast not imitate Indian singers. I was left wanting the real thing.

If not enough was made of the Indian influence, neither did Murphy take full advantage of all that the western symphony orchestra has to offer. His score follows the conventions of Hindustani classical music, in which each raga stays on a single chord. It also sits at the same consistency throughout. Why not counteract harmonic stasis with a bit of textural variety? The real wildcard, however, is a libretto by Amit Chaudhuri that tries to reconcile the mystique of a Sanskrit epic with such prosaic statements as: “My guru was dressed as usual in a loose white kurta and pyjamas”.

Sanjukta Sinha and Aakash Odedra © ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)
Sanjukta Sinha and Aakash Odedra
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2017)

This is not to say there weren’t any successful examples of synthesis. Ashwani Shankar’s shehnai added a wonderful, fizzy reverb to the woodwinds; impossible cross-rhythms and scat-like konnakol passages held me enraptured. Individually, there were some excellent performances – most notably from the five dancers, lifted by Gauri Diwakar’s stunning choreography. Murphy, who also conducted, was excellent in holding the whole cumbersome thing together.

There is something noble in Shankar’s attempt to combine these disparate musical traditions. It’s also fantastic that the London Philharmonic Orchestra are willing to take a risk on such unproven repertoire. And whilst it didn’t leave me wanting more, it has ignited an interest in Indian classical dance, as well as a burning desire to see Kumar in the role of Mario Cavaradossi. Even in defeat, cross-pollination proves itself to be a powerful ally.

***11