Ravi Shankar’s sole opera Sukanya came to the Royal Festival Hall, in a co-production between the Royal Opera, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Curve Leicester, for the last date in its world premiere tour. He started the work in 2012 as a love letter to his wife Sukanya Rajan, who shared her Christian name with the character from the longest of the Sanskrit epics, and it was completed after his death by the composer David Murphy and Shankar’s daughter Anoushka.
The story is taken from Book III of the Mahābhārata, the Vana Parva (Book of the Forest), and asks whether love is ultimately human or divine. Two demigods, the Aswini twins, ask the Goddess to show them love at its most true. She reveals a man called Chyavana who is so immersed in his meditation following his sister’s death that he does not even notice when ants crawl across him and encase him in a huge nest. He is discovered a hundred years later by King Sharyaati and his daughter Princess Sukanya who are mortified at what this noble person has gone through. Sukanya subsequently marries him but at this point the Aswini twins grow irate that this beautiful woman should be giving herself to a mere mortal instead of them. Chyavana agrees to a challenge whereby he will be transformed to look like the twins to see if Sukanya can distinguish him from them. She subsequently identifies him in an instant, leading the twins to recognise the strength of human love and the depth of the human soul.
It would be inaccurate to describe the work as an Indian opera. Shankar spent his life involved in collaborations that crossed ‘normal’ musical boundaries, and this piece draws from a multitude of traditions. The orchestra comprised the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Murphy, and a small group of ‘soloists’ who played sitar, shehnai, tabla, mridangam, khonnokol, ghatam and morsing. Music from the Indian tradition is highly prevalent in the opera and is frequently played by one of the solo instruments, sometimes with, for example, the orchestral strings underpinning the line in the most sensitive manner. At other times, the music feels positively minimalist, and the transitions between sections in different styles are extremely skilful. Although the basic point of the change is identifiable, we are still eased smoothly out of one style and into another before things are built up again within the new sound world.
As if to underpin all of this, a lengthy scene in Part II sees Sukanya and Chyavana discuss the differences between Western and Indian music as they sing the Raag Yaman Kalyan. The wide-ranging analysis considers practical variations as the workings of certain instruments are described, and philosophical ones such as the difference between creating music at a moment in time and preserving it forever via notes on a page. Overall the opera feels highly reminiscent of the works of John Adams by including no spoken dialogue, and contrasting minimalist passages with those that enable individual characters to espouse their philosophies. In the same way as the librettos of Adams’ operas and oratorios are drawn from a variety of texts so Amit Chaudhuri’s own sees several languages employed including English. Thus, both musically and thematically, the opera explores a wide range of emotions as it combines richly orchestrated passages with simpler folk-style tunes, and considers the relationship between the spiritual, the divine and the human.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra took centre-stage in the Royal Festival Hall and behind it rose three staircases. One of these faced outwards while the other two, upon which the excellent BBC Singers (the opera’s chorus) stood, were side on. Behind this projections appeared, and the fact that the ‘screen’ consisted of hanging linen, complete with ruffles and creases, only served to multiply out the images’ dreamy effects. There were pictures of temples, landscapes, water and even Shankar himself.
The video designs, courtesy of Akhila Krishnan and 59 Productions, were generally effective, but with the music feeling so fine-tuned to capture just the right sense of spirituality or earthiness for the moment in question, they could sometimes seem just a little too garish. This was not a problem when they were at their most ‘psychedelic’ because total exuberance was the effect being striven for in the music. At other times, however, when the green used was just a shade too bright it could undermine the sense of atmosphere, otherwise so perfectly generated, to a far greater degree than one might have supposed.
Nevertheless, director Suba Das’ presentation ultimately succeeded in ensuring that the visual elements, including the dancing delivered by five highly skilled performers choreographed by Aakash Odreda, worked with the music and philosophy of the piece to create an all-embracing experience. From among the soloists, Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya stood out with her command of line and silvery tone, while Alok Kumar delivered a robust sound that proved entirely appropriate for the role of Chyavana.
Alchemy, the festival celebrating cultural connections between South Asia and the UK, continues until 29 May 2017. For details of all events visit the Southbank Centre website.