Like all the best operas, Ravi Shankar’s Sukanya is a love story. A pair of trickster-demigods test the love of the beautiful young princess Sukanya for her old, blind husband Chyavana, and the outcome is redemptive. Shankar wrote several large-scale works in western forms, but never finished Sukanya . It was completed by David Murphy, who also conducted this premiere production.
It does the piece proud, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Singers plus a superb team of dancers and musicians in the Indian tradition supporting the central cast. In Suba Das’s semi-staging a staircase broad enough to dance upon rises from amidst the musicians, while video projections sweep the story seamlessly between the world of the Mahabharata and the present day. Murphy’s orchestrations are effective. This is essentially a western score with a John Adams-ish rhythmic momentum, and the whole thing moves with considerable verve, with energetic dance sequences and some truly astonishing beatboxing from the chorus.
My main reservation – and one that repeated listening might answer – was that it all felt a bit too much on full-beam. Musically, we heard generic moods – rapture, celebration – rather than the individual characters sketched by Amit Chaudhuri’s concise libretto. An extended, presumably autobiographical, scene in which Chyavana reminisces about the long-dead master who taught him the art of the raga is the heart of the piece, and its loveliest and most poignant sequence.
But the cast was wholly committed throughout: Keel Watson, sonorous (if under-used) as King Sharyati, the tenor Alok Kumar as a sympathetic Chyavana, and, at the centre of it all, focused and on radiant voice, that wonderful soprano Susanna Hurrell in the title role. An audience that looked more than usually diverse, even for Birmingham, responded warmly.