It's opera, Jim, but not as we know it. The late Ravi Shankar's romantic entertainment, his parting gift to the world, makes for an irresistibly multicoloured evening. Sukanya takes a slender tale from the Mahabharata, wraps it in cross-cultural trappings and uses it to celebrate ecstasy in music.
A young princess marries a sage who has meditated in stillness for so long that an ant-hill has formed over him. Two demi-gods try to wrest him from her by transforming him into their own likeness and then demand that she identify him correctly. Which she does.
Shankar's opera relates this fragment of a tale with disarming simplicity, but he takes time to admire the scenery along the way. He's helped by Amit Chaudhuri's riveting libretto, a stylish, surprisingly earthy creation that uses poetic prose for the lovers and rhyming couplets for the demigods, and by the way Aakash Odedra's whirling choreography energises the musical interludes.
An earlier attempt at East-meets-West musical fusion, Bombay Dreams, enjoyed a respectable run at the Apollo Victoria in its pre-Wicked days; but that show seemed to harbour a secret desire to be a standard western musical. Sukanya is its own beast, and the mix of microtonal, improvised Indian music on sitar and tabla with the massed standard-notated ranks of the London Philharmonic Orchestra makes for a sound world of arresting beauty and originality.
'A Complicite-esque subject'
To describe the music is to fumble inadequately for Western comparisons. There's a distinct American feel to the orchestrations that conductor David Murphy has completed from Shankar's material: at various points in the performance I scribbled 'Copland's ballets', 'Barber's Knoxville', 'Bernstein's Mass' and 'Swingle Scott Joplin', although the exquisite music Sukanya sings at the couple's reuniting is closer to a Song of the Auvergne. Yet the overall tone, the tang of it all, remains unmistakably Indian. The ensemble singing, whether by the soloists en masse or by the underused BBC Singers, has a luminous impact.
The opera benefits from superbly eloquent central performances by Susanna Hurrell, a leading light in the Britpack of brilliant young sopranos, and by tenor Alok Kumar as Chyavana, Sukanya's husband. There's fine work, too, from Njabulo Madlala and Michel de Souza as the Twins, plus sturdy cameos from Keel Watson and Eleanor Minney.
It's semi-staged inasmuch as the musicians are arrayed before us, but the technical resources of the Royal Opera House (co-producers with the LPO and the Curve) have enabled Suba Das to direct a full-blown production around them. Voices are amplified, perhaps of necessity, so at times Das's use of a wide open space make it hard to see where the sound is coming from. But overall (and take this as praise) he does a Simon McBurney-esque job on a Complicite-esque subject.
Molly Einchomb's triple-staircase set is backed by a huge white scrim that's kept busy with inventive video imagery by 59 Productions, so as theatre the show is more total than partial. However, the effect, like the music, is not easy to describe. Best go see for yourself.
Sukanya plays at the Lowry, Salford, on 14 May, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 15 May and at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 19 May.