Aged 90, the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar announced he was going to write an opera. He died before its completion, and it fell to violinist-conductor David Murphy – and to Shankar’s wife Sukanya and his daughter sitarist Anoushka – to fill in the gaps.
The opera is based on a tale from the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, in which the princess Sukanya, having accidentally blinded the sage Chyavana, honourably offers to care for him as his wife. Their enduring relationship is tested by the jealous demigods the Ashwini twins, who ultimately lay down a challenge to Sukanya: let them transform Chyavana into the twins’ image; if she can identify Chyavana from among them (which of course she does), the sage’s youth will be restored.
The opera draws together a cast of singers, traditional Indian instruments, choir and orchestra (all amplified) in a way that is mostly convincing, though the 55-piece orchestra occasionally seems an accessory. Dramatically the pace is unreliable, and Part II – which suddenly becomes more autobiographical as Chyavana tells Sukanya of his early musical studies – sees the libretto at its most prosaic (“Later we sat on the floor in my room and my guru taught me how to tune the instrument.”)
But there are fiery musical moments, not least with the introduction of konnakol (virtuoso oral articulation rhythmic patterns), plus some breathtaking dance and costumes. Somehow Shankar’s merging of diverse traditions radiates with symbolism and if the work overall is no greater than the sum of its parts, at least the parts themselves are inspired.