Much to celebrate in the ‘timeless’ revival of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in Hamburg

GermanyGermany Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo, Pagliacci: Soloists, Chorus, Extra Chorus, Alsterspatzen (children and youth chorus) of Hamburg State Opera, Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra / Daniele Callegari (conductor). Hamburg State Opera, 29.3.2024. (DMD)

Hamburg State Opera’s Cavalleria rusticana © Hans Jörg Michel

Director – Giancarlo del Monaco
Stage and Costume design – Michael Scott
Chorus director – Eberhard Friedrich


Cavalleria rusticana
Turiddu – Marcelo Puente
Mamma Lucia – Renate Spingler
Santuzza – Ekaterina Gubanova
Alfio – George Petean
Lola – Ida Aldrian

Tonio – George Petean
Canio – Vittorio Grigolo
Nedda – Anna Princeva
Beppe – Seungwoo Simon Yang
Silvio – Nicholas Mogg

The production of this double bill dates back to 1988: with its timeless concept it has been revived numerous times across a range of artistic managements. The set and costumes, designed by Michael Scott, create a realistic impression of a Sicilian village, with a range of sand-coloured buildings with ground floor doors and windows and first floor balconies. Director Giancarlo del Monaco, who was one of the most important advocates of directing opera true to its original intentions (as opposed to the Regietheater-approach) at the time, placed quite authentic characters within that environment. Chorus members appeared to have their personal stories within the whole. As the sun rose on Easter morning in Cavalleria rusticana, women appeared on their balconies, relaxed within the constraints of their costumes, yawning, stretching, welcoming the day and kneeling as they gave thanks to God for life and nature. They met on their way to church, again in line with their respective positions within the village and neighbourhood hierarchies, and the seriousness of their religious belief. Santuzza stood out from the start, shunned by the others. When she approached Mamma Lucia, Lucia seemed hesitant at first as well – but more so because of what others might think or say if she was seen speaking to her. When they were more on their own, her motherly feelings took over, combined with mixed feelings of love for and disappointment in her own son. Turiddu was not bad or evil, just young and carefree, and quick to shift his attention from one woman to the next, innocent in a way, immature, not realising the impact of his action on the feelings of others. Lola was the equally carefree woman who loves to entice men to her ways. Alfio represented the simple-minded man bound by the code of honour of his of time and place. Each in their own way was unable or unwilling of looking beyond their fixed boundaries.

Within that village, the play presented by the troupe of performers represented a major attraction in Pagliacci. The village people were always more or less around, curious to see not only the performance itself but equally to catch a glimpse of the artists’ private lives. The feelings of love, unanswered for Tonio, betrayed for Canio, fresh for Silvio and Nedda, were as central to this opera as they were to Cavalleria rusticana. The music suggests a Mediterranean ardour – monumental, overwhelming and hard to control. Nedda was fed up with Canio’s love for her, especially his jealousy. She was disturbed and disgusted by Tonio’s advances because of his disfigurement, and the moment when he seemed to force himself on her came across as genuinely threatening for her – she happened to find the whip for her self-protection, used it in self-defence and thus triggered Tonio telling Canio about her love affair with Silvio.

Conducting the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, Daniele Callegari brought out the fire of the music very well indeed, its emotions always clearly defined and accentuated to breaking point. He also supported the singers well. Ekaterina Gubanova has made a considerable name for herself in recent years, predominantly with Wagner in the leading opera houses across the world. She is a very accomplished and committed actor, making us empathise with Santuzza’s sadness. The long arcs of her music suited Gubanova’s voice very well indeed, she was able to bring warmth and emotion to them. Her voice was, however, unable to hover above the chorus and to cut through the orchestra for the Easter Hymn. Renate Spingler acted and sang Mamma Lucia as a very motherly older woman, saturated in life’s experiences. Her voice sounded appropriately ‘old’, while retaining natural beauty of sound – not having to rely, as with some voices of older singers, on some vague memory or idea of what the voice may have been like in younger years. Ida Aldrian brought to Lola an appropriate glamour and freshness of voice. Marcelo Puente took a while onstage for his voice to warm up: his tenor was steely, mostly forte and more, which in a way suited his portrayal of Turiddu.

Hamburg State Opera’s Pagliacci © Hans Jörg Michel

Puente’s voice is not (yet) instantly recognisable – quite unlike that of the tenor cast as Canio: Vittorio Grigolo. His voice is developing the weight needed for Canio and not only just for the character’s signature Vesti la giubba aria. Grigolo has not quite reached the ease with which the role has been sung by other tenors who have had this aria in their repertory for longer. Grigolo had to work hard, visibly and audibly so, but where he succeeded, there was a very high level of achievement indeed, and hope for a more rounded performance at that level in years to come. For the curtain call he displayed some star antics of jumping about and raising his arms high in the air to invite cheers from the audience, even humbly kissing the stage floor. This kind of behaviour seems to have become part of his live appearances, and the Hamburg audience greeted it with some amused laughter.

George Petean appeared in both operas, as Alfio and as the Prologue and Tonio. His voice was evenly warm, strong, clearly focused and noticeably different for the three characters. Seungwoo Simon Yang contributed as fresh-voiced Beppe, and Nicholas Mogg was more than reliable as Silvio. Anna Princeva was admirable as Nedda; she is a brilliant actress, able to show a wide range of appropriate emotions. Her voice sounds fresh, with subtly differentiated nuances across the range of registers and volume. Her high notes sounded very secure and ringing. Princeva was clearly startled, but sought, and outwardly managed, to put up a brave front, when Grigolo quite unexpectedly kissed her fully on the mouth in a sudden outburst of joy at the curtain call.

Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe

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