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Paolo Gavanelli:  The Italian baritone talks to Anne Ozorio about singing Scarpia at The Royal Opera (AO)


Verdi and Puccini wrote roles that demand tremendous presence, and few singers create them as effectively as Paolo Gavanelli. His characterisations are so powerful that it was a little worrying to encounter someone who can create such Rigolettos, Nabuccos, Scarpias, Iagos, and Gianni Schicchis, but Gavanelli himself is charming.  It’s all in his art: he says his roles come alive because he thinks about how the music is written. But this is a modest understatement, for much experience and intelligence goes into his work. This Tosca, a production by Jonathan Kent, was premiered by Bryn Terfel just two years ago, but Gavanelli’s Scarpia will make it special.

Gavanelli has created Rigoletto no fewer less than 185 times and will soon achieve 200 productions.  Even by his standards, his 2001 Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House was a milestone.  He scuttled across the stage like a wounded spider, but he sang the role with such dignity that he made the role deeply moving.  “If you think about what Rigoletto did, he is like a monster for keeping his daughter hidden like a prisoner, but if you look at the tessitura in the first act it’s very, very high for a baritone.  When a baritone sings that high, it’s disturbing, like having a stick in your body, something’s not right. Then in the second act, the tone is real baritone, in the middle register. That’s when you discover the real nature of Rigoletto. Then, at the end, the fermata are very low, for he is coming close to finding out his daughter is dead.. It’s cupo, very dark.  It’s perfect. Verdi has designed the character”.

If Gavanelli can make Rigoletto sympathetic, what does he make of Scarpia ? “It depends on the point of view”, he says. “Nowadays the public has an idea that Scarpia is bad.  In Italy, we say that the history taught in schools is written by the winners not the losers. So of course we think Angelotti and Cavaradossi are good because they are republicans.   But when you think about 1800, Napoleon and the battle of Marengo, it’s a time of great instability. For many people then, Scarpia meant order and security. To him, the republicans are like terrorists now, trying to destroy things. He is a policeman doing his job.  He’s practical and pragmatic, not evil.
Angoscia grande, pronta confessione eviterà!  If he can get a confession, it saves everyone trouble. He’s not like Iago who is evil in purest state.  Iago gets pleasure from doing evil, from making others suffer. But Scarpia supports the church and state because that’s what gives him his power.  When he makes the sign of the Cross in the second act he doesn’t do it because he trusts in God but because he thinks, if I pray, God will do something for me. Do ut des, that’s Latin, I give you something, you give me something back.  This is how Scarpia is. A doppia mira tendo il voler, my will takes aim at a double target, né il capo del ribelle è la più preziosa, and the rebel’s head isn’t the only prize. He wants Tosca and he can get rid of the rebel too.  Of course Scarpia is brutal, but always he has something to conquer, power, Tosca…..”

Although he has sung Scarpia many times, each time he finds something new from the music. “I’m trying to get as little movement as possible. Everything happens in this opera in only a few hours, close to real time. I want to put in the idea that Scarpia is used to doing these things every day, it’s his routine.  Angelotti and Cavaradossi get tortured, but the same would happen to any republican rebel. It’s just the way they used to do things then. So when he arrives at the church, he doesn’t have to shake his fingers and shout. Spoleto and the other policemen know perfectly what they have to do. They do things like this all the time.  No ? When Scarpia arrives he just looks around majestically and says, “Un tal baccano in chiesa!, what a noise in a church !”. Everyone else is running around.   But I look at the window, it’s very soft and quiet, almost no movement.  But when Scarpia moves, everyone notices, the public is shocked. In Italy, we have a saying “the dog that barks does not bite”.  Scarpia knows he has power, so he doesn’t need to show it by screaming. When he questions Cavaradossi he doesn’t shout, he just asks quietly.  He’s pragmatic, he doesn’t waste time”.

Gavanelli is intelligent – he was one of the top law students in his years at Padua, one of the oldest universities in Europe – and intelligence certainly shows in the way he approaches his work.  His roles have huge emotional impact, but they arise from firm technique. “I have to give emotion when I sing, but I do not have to have emotion while I’m singing. It’s different. When I sing it’s well prepared and I know what I have to do”. Recently  he heard someone asked Maurizio Pollini what he felt when he played. “Nothing” said Pollini, “if I get too emotional I make mistakes”.  A performer is like a channel allowing feeling to flow between composer and audience.  When he was training, his teacher told him that in a career, “The voice is 5% important. The rest is stamina, strong nerves, and good technique. Of course a perfect voice helps, but some people start with a wonderful voice but after a few years it’s finished. And other people have good careers because they can use the voice they have well”.

Although Gavanelli at 48 is relatively young for someone so prominent, he has seen many changes. From the age of 4 or 5 he was listening to the great singers of the past – Benjamino Gigli, Giovanni Martinelli, Giuseppe de Luca, Appolo Granforte.  “Things now are not like 60 or 70 years ago. When Gigli sang in America, he went by ship and it took 2 weeks. And on board he had a pianist and piano and he could vocalize with the fresh ocean air! Nowadays we fly everywhere, we sing every 2 or 3 days. In San Francisco I’m singing my 70th Gianni Schicchi”.  When he started singing, he had to practice a short passage from Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima for weeks until it was perfect, but singers don’t have that luxury today. And audiences are used to judging by recordings. “Every performance has to be like a premiere.  I love audiences but I wish they would understand that we are human. We can sing 100 performances, and people only remember the one that wasn’t so good because we were sick or had problems like everyone else in the world has sometimes. And they forget the 99 that were wonderful !”

Gavanelli is a regular at the Royal Opera House because he’s much respected.  He’s also a regular in Munich, where he was appointed Kammersänger in 2005. The honour means a lot because it was awarded by the Bavarian State Ministry and he doesn’t sing German repertoire. He’s met many great singers, but he remembers the time early in his career when he sang with Julia Varady in La Traviata. He’d sung the second strophe of Di Provenza il mar with pppp, four pianissmiAfterwards, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau came up and took him by the arm. “Mr Gavanelli”, he said, “Don’t ever lose your pianissimo! I can hear it in the last row of the theatre !” It taught him something about using the voice for dramatic effect.  “You can sing most of an opera piano but at some point you have to be forte. If you are screaming all the time it’s boring, and after a few minutes the audience gives up.  But if you sing piano, lento, calando, when you do the forte people will pay attention”.  So Gavanelli’s Scarpia, this month at the Royal Opera House, will seem all the more menacing for being restrained and orderly.

Anne Ozorio

Picture courtesy of  IMG Artists (UK)

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