Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.
This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.
The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.
The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.