Njabulo Madlala, Michel de Souza, Susanna Hurrell, Keel Watson et al; BBC Singers; London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Murphy (LPO label)
Njabulo Madlala, Michel de Souza, Susanna Hurrell, Keel Watson, Eleanor Minney, Alok Kumar, M Balachandar, Rajkumar Misra, Parimal Sadaphal, Ashwani Shankar, Pirashanna Thevarajah, (voices); BBC Singers; London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Murphy
LPO LPO-0115 88.34 mins
Ravi Shankar (1920-2012) was 90 years old when he embarked on this ambitious first opera and, while he did not live to complete it, conductor-violinist David Murphy has worked hard to realise his vision. Based on a tale from the Sanskrit epic Mahãbhãrata, it’s a paean to love, destiny and the coming together of youth and age: Shankar had discovered that his wife Sukanya shares the name of a character who, like her, marries a much older man, and he set about weaving fantasy with autobiography in celebration.
The opera relates the meeting and marriage of Sukanya and the sage Chyavana, telling how their union is only strengthened when the demi-god Aswini twins jealously attempt to woo Sukanya for themselves. Alongside ancient and modern, male and female, mortal and divine, the piece encapsulates Shankar’s lifelong devotion to bringing together the music of east and west; his extraordinary achievements reflected here in the combination of Western-style cast, BBC Singers and London Philharmonic Orchestra with a five-piece Indian instrumental ensemble and konnakol scat singing.
That the integration of styles and instruments feels so natural is testament to Shankar’s pioneering work – and the skill and enthusiasm of the singers and musicians under Murphy’s baton. However, the opera itself is not entirely unproblematic, not least in its awkward personal-parable mix. Amit Chaudhuri’s libretto lacks subtlety and is rhythmically ill-set, and the drama incorporates long instrumental scenes that cry out for the visual spectacle mere aural recording can only suggest.