Probably the most tremendous performance of a Verdi opera I've ever heard was at the Royal Opera House on 10 June 2005, when Sir Edward Downes led a stellar cast including Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala in Rigoletto. But it was the singer in the central role who really made an impact: Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli created the part in David McVicar's production when it was new in 2001 and frankly, I don't imagine I'll ever hear it performed more convincingly. Gavanelli combines the lyric freshness of Cappuccilli with the biting drama of Bruson, and he has made the part his own the world over.
The singer returns to Covent Garden this month for another new production, this time of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in which he makes his role debut as Dulcamara. In an interview backstage during rehearsals he told me what attracted him to sing a rare comic role, why no composer in history has ever composed as well for the voice as Donizetti – and why he's not read a review since October 1993.
'Every time I sing at Covent Garden, I'm glad to be back', he says. 'It started with Otello under Maestro [Myung-Whun] Chung over a decade ago and it's always a pleasure. I don't need to say that this is a top-level theatre doing top-level work because everyone knows it. It's normal for London to have top quality.'
Dulcamara is one of the great baritone roles in the Italian repertoire, and it's almost a surprise that Gavanelli hasn't sung it before. 'But it's a long story', he tells me. 'It was the idea of Peter Katona, the casting director at Covent Garden, that I might do it. But I wasn't sure at first. If you sing Rigoletto, Falstaff, Macbeth, Boccanegra and Nabucco, you almost have enough already. Which are you going to give up? If a baritone has these five roles, what more could you want? When Peter suggested it to me, I was surprised. I normally do dramatic roles! But he told me, 'You are in the line of Italian baritones like Gobbi and Taddei. They jump without problems from very dramatic roles to Dulcamara, Don Pasquale, Gianni Schicchi'. And I thought, OK, why not? It's a very important new production for London, and as I said, this opera house is at the top. I studied the role – and now I'm doing Dulcamara!'
It's clear, too, that Laurent Pelly's production of Elisir isn't going to present the character in a conventional way, so perhaps Gavanelli won't be deviating from his normal dramatic persona quite as much as might be the case in other productions. 'We singers are simple artists. It's not our business to tell everybody about a character, that's the job of the stage director. In fact, the normal Dulcamara is a very pleasant man, a little fat like me! He's smart and clever, but he always has a positive direction of feeling. He does 'illegal' things, such as selling the elixir, which doesn't work in the way he says, but he is intelligent and sells people things in a very pleasant way, as if he's in a fish market. Also, even if he's not an entirely moral person, at least the public sees him as a nice character. But in this production, it's quite different. He has quite a negative personality. He seems a little bit like a member of the mafia or with a slight criminal, sinister edge, though that should not be interpreted too literally. He is not a normal Dulcamara. The people have to love him in this production not because of comic situations but because when he's being serious it's very funny. That's the point of view of this director. I like the production very much because it's set in 1960s Italy and it's very smart. It's not a cliché or routine. There's something new.'
Those of us who admired Mikko Franck's conducting of Tosca last season at Covent Garden won't be surprised to hear that Gavanelli speaks very warmly of the way he's leading rehearsals of the new L'elisir d'amore. 'It's the first time I've worked with him but I find it very easy. He understands the character of the opera perfectly. His direction is very light and smooth – it's not heavy. He's director of the Helsinki Opera and I'm doing a new production of Rigoletto with him there next year. I'm thrilled, because even though he's Finnish he understands the Italian style and the Italian tradition. That shows a great conductor. It's only my opinion, but I think that a great conductor is someone with whom you can work easily. He has to tell you many things, but generally he's easy – there's no tension, you don't feel that you can't move forward. I've felt that several times here at Covent Garden. With Chung it was the same - Otello is a very complicated opera but it was easy with him. Doing Falstaff with Bernard Haitink here was easy, too.'
Gavanelli seems to regard the Rigoletto with Sir Edward Downes as being in a special category. 'It was fantastic. I don't know anyone in the world today who knows as much about Verdi as he does; he knows every point in Verdi. I loved David McVicar's wonderful production, too, and I'm doing it again in 2009.'
A mention of Donizetti lights up Gavanelli's face. 'I tell you this – and again it's just my personal opinion: if we're talking about the voice, vocal strength, I think that Donizetti is the best composer for the voice ever. Please forgive me, Verdi and Mozart! Sometimes Bellini has this quality too: Donizetti is like a 'cleaning service' for the voice. I've just finished singing Roberto Devereux in Munich with Gruberova. If you have some vocal problems and you're singing something like Tosca, you can still do it. The defects in the voice are covered because the vocal writing of Tosca is not 'academic', not classical. But if you have some problems of emission in the voice, or whatever, and you try to sing Donizetti, it's terrible. Even in the recitative of Roberto Devereux, I find you have to sing every note with scholastic perfection. It's like a litmus test for the voice – if you have some problems, put your voice in an opera by Donizetti. You have to sing legato and falsetto. All the most important Italian opera singers come from Donizetti – Sutherland, Pavarotti, Kraus, and now Gruberova – because Donizetti is a "school of singing".'
Gavenelli is also enthusiastic about the composer's dramatic talents, which he sees as being focused in the voice. 'I've sung Parisina d'Este (very difficult!), Linda di Chamounix, La favorita, Poliuto, Lucia di Lammermoor and now L'elisir d'amore. They offered Dom Sébastien to me, but you have to have time for study - I had six hours with my coach on Elisir and even on the aeroplane I was singing through parts – so I couldn't do it. Anyway, with Donizetti you always have to have a prima donna assoluta who is the focus of the drama. So many of the operas are about women - Maria di Rohan, Maria di Rudenz, Catarina Cornaro, Lucrezia Borgia.These are prima donnas who carry the weight of the piece. Take the final aria in Roberto Devereux, Elizabeth's 'Vivi, ingrato', for instance. I don't know another aria that is as heavy as this. The problem of Donizetti is that you have to have a very light, floating quality but dramatic at the same time. When you think 'dramatic', it makes you want to push the voice. But no, you have to stay light while making the colour in your voice. Dramatic and floating at the same time. That's even the case with the baritone in Devereux: it's a dramatic role, but the singing requires terrific legato. You have to think about the sound you're creating all the time.'
Though Dulcamara is a new comic role for Gavanelli, the singer doesn't see it as taken him away from his standard dramatic repertoire. 'At the moment, I have Rigoletto, Nabucco and things like that in my diary. I'm doing Gianni Schicchi in San Francisco alongside Il tabarro in San Francisco in two years' time. I've done Michele Tabarro before, but I have to learn Schicchi. It's quite complicated because I don't know a more dramatic role than Michele – it's on the same level as Wozzeck. It's really incredibly demanding. Then an hour later, you have to jump totally in the opposite direction and sing Schicchi. I have to be patient and study!
'In terms of comic roles, in the past I've sung things like Leporello and Germano in Rossini's La scala di seta. I did Don Parmenione in L'occasione fa il ladro in the Pesaro production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. It's one of the best productions I've ever seen. The title means 'Opportunity Makes the Thief' but the subtitle is 'Il cambio della valigia' – 'The Exchange of Luggage' – and it's a situation comedy. It is set in a hotel at night where all the guests take each other's suitcases by accident. This production of Ponnelle was excellent. One of the principals arrived in a wig and costume that made him look like Rossini, and he came through the stalls with a suitcase, opened the case and gave the orchestral score to the conductor. The audience loved it! The singer then went onto the stage, put the suitcase at the front of the stage and when he opened it, the Overture started. Underneath the case was a trap door, and all the artists came through it. In one minute and forty seconds, the scene was set. It's about twenty years since this production, but it was amazing!'
When I ask Gavanelli what first awoke his love of music as a child, he makes it clear that there was no 'event' – it was always part of the fabric of his life. 'My family comes from the land of Verdi, Emilia-Romagna. My mother was from Modena, like Pavarotti and Freni, and my father was from the city of Ravenna. This part of Italy is passionate about opera. The first opera I saw was at the age of five and a half years – it was Gianni Poggi and Rosanna Carteri in La traviata. My mother was surprised because normally children can't sit still in an opera, but I was sitting like a snowman without moving a muscle for the whole performance. Following that, I saw Franco Corelli, Piero Cappuccilli, Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Renata Tebaldi (I missed Maria Callas though), Giuseppe di Stefano, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker – I could go on for half an hour. So opera was in my blood.
'When I was seventeen my mother took me for singing lessons. After seven years, I made my debut at twenty-four, but I carried on studying for another four years at the same time, which makes eleven years of study in total.' He also studied Law, though it was never his passion. 'I suggest to every young singer: don't take just one direction in your life, especially today. I am forty-eight, and although it was difficult thirty years ago, it was easier than it is today. We had no competition back then. But now, we have terrific competition, and if you study only one thing you're taking a big risk. So I did Law as well as singing because I might have had bad luck and been forced to do something other than singing. Padova is one of the oldest universities in the world and it's very difficult to do Law there. Only six per cent of students pass Civil Rights there on the first attempt. I was in the six per cent, which was very nice, but the singing was going well so I left the Law behind me.' But now he's singing Gianni Schicchi [the lawyer in Puccini's opera of the same name, who forges a will], I point out. 'It's a little contradiction with the law study, yes', he laughs. 'False testament!'
Gavanelli's career went from strength to strength after his debut. 'First of all, I should explain that I planned my career to last until I was over fifty years old. When you decide to do an opera career, you have different options. I planned to continue for forty years; Maria Callas' career lasted just over ten. She took her decision, and I respect that, but I want to continue longer.
'My career took off when I started to sing in small theatres in Austria like Klagenfurt and Graz. My teacher told me that it's better to be at the top of the second division than last in the first. La Scala offered to me Yamadori [in Butterfly], Sciarrone [in Tosca] – small roles. But I didn't want to do small roles. Klagenfurt offered me the lead baritone role in Ernani, Don Carlo; Graz gave me La forza del Destino. I preferred to sing these roles in smaller houses than sing Yamadori at La Scala all my life. I'd have had no chance to step upwards. Someone from Vienna heard me and I received a contract from the Wiener Konzerthaus for a performance of La favorita with Alfredo Kraus and Agnes Baltsa. The conductor was Giuseppe Patanè.' He laughs in evident amusement at his good fortune. 'When it arrived, I was twenty-seven. Singing between Kraus and Baltsa in Vienna. Patanè was in Vienna at that time and was absolutely wonderful. I remember going to see a performance of Lohengrin. When he returned after the interval to start the second act, the audience applauded for six minutes and he couldn't start until he had taken another bow! That's the kind of person I was suddenly working with.
'After that I got many offers from Vienna. A couple of years later I was given Trovatore at the Met, followed by Puritani and Rigoletto. In 1986, my career jumped and I went slowly upwards.'
With a repertoire of over sixty roles, one might think that there was little left for Gavanelli to do. But there are a few projects which attract him. 'I'd like to do Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re - there's a very good role for a baritone in it. Another one in my diary is La fanciulla del West in an important theatre. I've always wanted to do Jack Rance. Much later, I would like to try some Wagner. I talk German fluently, so it makes sense, and a very important conductor offered me Der fliegende Holländer. But I want to have four months at home with my coach, without distraction and with no performances, in order to learn it properly. And at the moment, I just don't have the time. The only main Verdi operas I haven't sung are I vespri Siciliani, Stiffelio and I masnadieri.'
Now a regular fixture at Covent Garden, Paolo Gavanelli is returning both next year and the year after. 'I'm coming for the Rigoletto in 2009. For me it's one of the best, if not the best production of it I've been in. David McVicar's production is one of the jewels of the opera world.' But before then, he's coming back later this season as Scarpia in a revival of Tosca. I quiz him on the character's unpleasant personality, but Gavanelli sees a sympathetic side to him. 'It depends on your point of view. For Scarpia, Cavaradossi is not a good person. He is a terrorist of his times – he's against the government. We look at the drama of Tosca through the eyes of 2007, but the opera is set in 1800 and should be seen in that context. Scarpia is the 'conservation man'. He doesn't want things to change. I find the scene when he eats his dinner is very interesting. He's very methodical: every day he has dinner at that time and at that place at the table. I don't like Scarpia to be a hysterical character: he's very quiet. He has all the power – why does he have to be hysterical? He's a calm man and that's the way to play it.' But he tortures Cavaradossi, I protest. 'We don't see that happening. I don't know if he's being tortured – he's in another room. I hear something but I'm not sure!' he laughs. 'It's just interrogation. It was normal to be quite rough at that time – the police in the Vatican State were quite hard in that period. And don't forget that at the finale of the first act, Scarpia bends down on his knees and makes the sign of the cross. Scarpia believes in God – he's a Catholic. Of course, I'm joking here slightly, but this hypocrisy is at the heart of the play.'
Another of Gavanelli's most important forthcoming engagements is a new production of Verdi's Nabucco in Munich at the end of January. 'But I know almost nothing about it at the moment – it's a secret! I know I will have a wig similar to the ones worn by the Japanese Samurai, and later on I have short, cut hair. But I don't know anything else about it.'
Gavanelli is Kammersänger in Munich, which is a very important title as he explains. 'Munich is unusual because although it operates on a repertory system, the quality never drops. If you go every night to see an opera – sometimes five different ones in one week – the quality of the musical performance is always high. The orchestra and chorus are very solid and well-prepared. For instance, we had just one orchestral rehearsal and three days of stage rehearsal for the Roberto Devereux I've just done, but it was very precise and very high quality. I started there in 1988 under Wolfgang Sawallisch and I've sung a lot there. Then in 2005 I became Kammersänger. That's very unusual for an Italian because it's not given by the opera house but by the Minister of Culture. It's very official. It's wonderful to have that title: the public loves me there, I sing there often, and it's very close to my home – just a four hour drive, 500km from Padova. After the performance, I drive home and arrive at three o'clock in the morning!'
When we get to the subject of Gavanelli's legacy, the singer gives a surprising answer. 'I'd like to be remembered as a very professional singer. I haven't read any reviews since October 1993. I accept criticism from a person who knows more than me, but not from journalists. I did a press conference in Italy and I was asked about some bad reviews I had been given. I said look, being a music critic is a job, you get your salary every month, that's it. But I asked him to say, if you think I'm bad, can you tell me technically why? Not a single one of them could. And the following day, the front page of the newspaper read: 'Gavanelli Attacks Press'. Me, attack the press?! From that time onwards, I've not read a review. Think of someone like Callas. She is remembered, but one half of the opera fans absolutely hate her while the other half loves her. Del Monaco was like that, too. Some people hate me as well. People hate some opera singers much more than Chelsea fans hate Manchester fans! I want to be remembered in the future as a very professional singer by all the public. I don't mind if people don't like my voice, but I want them to be able to say "he was professional".'
Paolo Gavanelli stars in L'elisir d'amore at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 13 November 2007, and as Scarpia in Tosca next June.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Susan Graham, Jose Cura, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.
Rigoletto photo: Sasha Gusov