Monday 18 December 2023

Pandora's Box: great tunes, a neat moral, energetic performances, London Youth Opera premieres Stuart Hancock & Donald Sturrock's new opera

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - London Youth Opera at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music (Photo: Nina Swan)
Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - London Youth Opera at Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music (Photo: Nina Swann)

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box; London Youth Opera, conductor: Alastair Chilvers, director: Valentina Ceschi; Susie Sainsbury Theatre
Reviewed 16 December 2023

Full of good tunes, with an underlying moral and in a performance full of energy, London Youth Opera premieres Stuart Hancock and Donald Sturrock's new opera

For over 50 years, W11 Opera presented opera for families, performed by children. The company's remit is no longer restricted to the W11 postcode and to reflect this, relaunching with a new name, London Youth Opera, the company presented the premiere of composer Stuart Hancock and librettist Donald Sturrock's third collaboration with the company. 

Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box - Charlie Swann (Prometheus), Mahala De Santana SantosTodd (Zeus) - London Youth Opera (Photo: Stuart Hancock)
Stuart Hancock: Pandora's Box
Charlie Swann (Prometheus), Mahala De Santana SantosTodd (Zeus)
London Youth Opera (Photo: Stuart Hancock)
On Saturday 16 2023, at the Royal Academy of Music's Susie Sainsbury Theatre, London Youth Opera presented Pandora's Box with music by Stuart Hancock and words by Donald Sturrock. Alastair Chilvers conducted, Valentina Ceschi directed, with sets by Neil Irish, costumes by Anett Black and choreography by Maggie Rawlinson, lighting by Stephen Ley. Two recent graduates, Laura Molyneux and Megan Smith were assistant director and costume & wardrobe assistant.

Sturrock's lively book transported the story of Pandora's box to the modern day. Pandora (Alice Wakeman) is celebrating her 18th birthday with her friends Narcissus (Acadia Steen-Recanati) and Echo (Lily Harris), and her parents (Toby Duchen and Allegra Clement-Davies). Prometheus (Charlie Swann) decides to give her an extra present, a box containing a spark from the sacred flame, but Hermes (Leia Joyce) and Proteus (Cassia Corominaas Mieville) play a trick and include extra, not so nice gifts, from the gods, Pluto (Sherae Callum), Aphrodite (Indigo Corominas Mieville) and Hera (Amelie Reeve). The gods are largely selfish, with Zeus (Mahala De Santana Santos Todd) a bad-tempered slob, and only Athena (Ella Cox) seems to have the remotest bit of integrity. The arrival of the box causes consternation as Pandora and her friends open the gifts, but all is resolved. Pandora and Prometheus even look forward together.

In the pit there was a small orchestra of ten based on the Odyssey Festival Orchestra. The company fielded over 40 young singers with quite a range of ages. Girls seemed to be in the majority in the company and many of the main roles had gender-blind casting. The company was large enough to field two choruses, one, consisting of the older singers, made up the gods whilst the other, consisting of the young singers made up the gardeners, and Hancock took advantage of his in many of the large-scale ensembles.

This was Hancock's third opera for the company, he and Sturrock wrote Rain Dance (2010) and The Cutlass Crew (2017) for W11 Opera and both of these have also been taken up by North Cambridge Family Opera in Boston, USA. Hancock is known for his film and TV work including the animated We're Going On A Bear Hunt.

Pandora's Box sits part way between opera and musical and operetta. Written in distinct numbers, the work used sung dialogue with just a sprinkling of spoken text for emphasis. Hancock's music varied in style and he seemed to take great delight in giving us different musical genres (including what sounded like Countrry & Western) in the different numbers, and this enabled the different soloists to exercise their various musical styles of performance. Some had neat, classical style voices whilst at least one of the girls seemed to have an incipient music theatre belt.

This was a very democratic evening, everyone got their moment. The work lasted around 80 minutes and it certainly flew by, with the combination of Hancock and Sturrock's deft pacing of the story alongside vigorously engaging performances.

Alice Wakeman and Charlie Swann made a delightful lead couple as Pandora and Prometheus, holding our attention throughout the evening, both bringing touching moments to their portrayal.  Acacia Steen-Recanati and Lily Harris were Pandora's fantastically colourful friends, whilst Toby Duchen and Allegra Clement-Davies managed to almost bring the house down with their delightful duet as Pandora's eco-warrier, gardener parents. And someone certainly had fun sourcing all the colourful costumes that the gardeners/eco-warriers wore.

Leia Joyce and Cassia Corominas Mieville made a strongly characterful comedy double act as Hermes and Proteus, complete with a music hall style number. The goddesses were suitably disdainful and sulky, Amelie Reeve, Indigo Corominas Mieville and Alla Cox, with Sherae Callum as a vividly drawn Pluto and Mahala De Santana Santos Todd as Zeus.

Neil Irish's two level set was simple yet effective and I loved the clouds, made of white cardboard boxes, which raised and lowere to indicate whether the scene was on earth or in the heavens.Valentina Ceschi's production was direct, she and her young cast told the story well. This was an all-singing, all dancing show with lots of moving parts and was a credit to all concerned. In the pit, Alastair Chilvers shepherded his large cast admirably, and the hard working ensemble provided firm support but also seemed to be having a bit of fun too.

Pandora's Box wore its learning lightly. Donald Sturrock's libretto might have made a moral point, he also had plenty of witty turns of phrase, whilst Stuart Hancock definitely has the ability to turn out memorable tunes with plenty in the show being distinctly hummable. But above all, the cast themselves seemed to be enjoying themselves.

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