David Murphy / London Philharmonic Orchestra

Ravi Shankar: Sukanya

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At the height of his fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ravi Shankar explored East-West fusions in both the pop and classical realms. Among his works are three concertos for sitar and orchestra. Late in life, he turned once again to the fusion question, and at his death in 2012, at age 92, he left an unfinished opera, Sukanya. It was shaped and completed by his daughter Anoushka Shankar and the conductor of the present performance, David Murphy. This recording, taken from a live performance in 2017, marks its world premiere. The libretto, taken from a story in the Indian epic poem The Mahabharata, is about a princess who marries a much older sage, is in English, and is a bit splashy, with echoes of Shankar's own life; Sukanya was the name of his third and final wife. Broad-strokes libretti are hardly unheard-of in the operatic world, and the music here qualifies as a profound breakthrough. Some of Shankar's earlier fusion pieces essentially used the Western orchestra as a giant device for establishing the tonal world of Indian music. He still does that in Sukanya, but he also does the converse, with Indian classical solos for the sitar and the oboe-like shehnai blooming into Western operatic vocal solos and duos. These work up to big climaxes of an entirely Western sort; the one at the end draws cheers that would be the envy of any opera house. The orchestral writing here is more sophisticated than in Shankar's earlier experiments of this kind, and the whole production has a kinetic feel that's immensely entertaining. It's also really unlike anything anyone else has ever done. Given that the work as it stands involved some tinkering from what Shankar left at his death, it's possible that some further reworking is warranted, and perhaps even under consideration, but the work as it stands offers a worthwhile evening at the theatre or in the listening room, and it makes one want to see the opera live and experience its choreographic and visual elements.

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