Ravi Shankar’s opera Sukanya was premiered in 2017 to great acclaim. It has been brought back for a reprise at the Royal Festival Hall with reduced forces, as part of the centenary celebrations of Shankar’s life and work. Parimal Sadaphal replaced Shankar’s daughter Anoushka as the key instrumentalist on the sitar alongside four other traditional Indian musicians in this semi-staged version of the opera. In spite of their relative small numbers, surrounded by the massed forces of the LPO, the blend of musical styles and instruments was seamless and intriguing. The opera was finished, orchestrated and conducted by Shankar’s amanuensis David Murphy.
The plot is based on a tale from the Mahabharata, but clearly also has autobiographical elements as Shankar’s third wife is named Sukanya and the myth mirrored their own relationship. An elderly seer, Chyavana, retreats from the world and is brought back to life by a young, beautiful princess. Her love for him is tested by a pair of jealous demi gods. Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza added humour and a vocal lightness of touch here. Susanna Hurrell again made a gracefully authentic Sukanya. The blended microtonal raag structure of her vocal line was beautifully expressed throughout and Jonathan Lemalu brought added weight to the part of King Shaariyati. The libretto remains somewhat jarring, but has been considerably pruned since 2017. Synergy Vocals brought their trademark layered energy to the Konnakol vocal percussive passages. The dancers, led by Gauri Diwakar, emphasised the joyful climax of the myth, with dancing of fabulous complexity and grace.