Sukanya review – Ravi Shankar's opera is both sublime and ridiculous

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
This new opera that blends the western form and Hindustani classical music makes for a ravishing spectacle but its music and libretto fail to consistently convince

In 1978, while he was already juggling at least two relationships, Ravi Shankar started an affair with a musician called Sukanya Rajan, 34 years his junior, who would later become his final wife. Quite by coincidence, Sukanya was also the name of a character from one of Shankar’s favourite Hindu myths, a young woman who falls in love with a blind, decrepit old sage called Chyavana and stays faithful to him, despite the advances of two mischievous demigods.

This opera, started by Shankar shortly before his death in 2012, is a love letter to his wife that draws from both the personal and the mythological, blurring the lines between Shankar’s extraordinary life and the Mahabharata.

Rather like Mozart’s Requiem, Sukanya was completed posthumously, with Shankar’s musical themes fleshed out by two longterm collaborators: Anoushka Shankar (his daughter with Sukanya) and the composer and conductor David Murphy. It is billed as a “semi-staged production” – one in which the cast share the stage with a 55-piece London Philharmonic Orchestra, five Indian musicians and an 18-piece choir – but it is quite a spectacle, with spellbinding back projections, dancers in ravishing costumes, all taking place on three grand staircases. There are dancers with rings on their noses and bells on their toes, throwing elaborate kathakali and flamenco shapes, and other men and women twirling like whirling dervishes.

Murphy’s score follows the conventions of Hindustani classical music, in which each raga stays on a single chord, moving between strident, Philip Glass-style minimalism and exuberant Aaron Copland hoedowns. There are moments when the hybridity works magnificently: when the strings start to shadow the sitar phrases; when the vocalists break into harmony; when the tablas start to pound like timpani; when the shennai emerges from the woodwind, like an oboe put through an FX pedal. There are also moments that fall flat: when the classically trained singers try to replicate Indian spoken percussion – a form of beat-boxing known as konnakol – they end up sounding like horse-racing commentators.

Music lesson … Alok Kumar as Chyavana and Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya.
Music lesson … Alok Kumar as Chyavana and Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty

The real wildcard here is the libretto, written by Amit Chaudhuri and projected on surtitles. It’s an uncomfortable mix of mock-epic poetry and demotic banalities (“You have the might to make a fuck more powerful than war!” yells one of the demigods early in the piece) and it’s delivered by each singer in a frenzied, arrhythmic bark. The scansion is like that in the limerick about the old man from Japan who tries to fit as many syllables into the last line as he possibly can, and the effect is often comic or ridiculous.

Yet even here, the effect can lurch from the fist-chewingly awful to the inspired. One aria sees Chyavana (played by Alok Kumar) tell young Sukanya (Susanna Hurrell) about how he started to learn an instrument. It starts like a facile Wikipedia entry on the differences between western and Hindustani classical music, but it slowly becomes mesmerising, self-referentially explaining the very hybridity that is taking place before your eyes.

• At Royal Festival Hall, London, on 19 May. Box office: 020-7960 4200.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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