George Gagnidze is one of today’s leading baritones and one of the Metropolitan Opera’s leading singers. Throughout the past few years, he has been invited to some of the most prestigious theaters in the world including Teatro alla Scala, Teatro Real Madrid, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin among others.
This season he returns to the Met for a double bill as Tonio in “Pagliacci” and Alfio in “Cavalleria Rusticana” and also makes his highly anticipated role debut as Barnaba in “La Gioconda” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
Gagnidze spoke to OperaWire on the challenges of singing a double bill and his process in learning a new role.
OperaWire: How do you view Tonio? Where does his malevolence come from and how do you make him sympathetic?
George Gagnidze: Tonio really isn’t a very likable character. For me he is a poor soul. People make fun of him because he is deformed and has a hump and doesn’t have a very good life. He is upset about his situation and therefore becomes who he is. But I’d like to quote the prologue here: “We are men of flesh and blood. Breathing the air of this lonely world.” He is just a human being who experienced a lot of pain in his life and that has changed him.
OW: How do you view his relationship with Canio? Do you think it is similar to that of Otello and Iago?
GG: One could find similarities, but one can’t really compare them, since the two characters are very different. Iago is extremely clever and aware of his actions and their possible consequences at any time. This is not the case with Tonio. He isn’t very intelligent and he only points out Nedda’s infidelity as a form of revenge for his hurt feelings. He is not spinning this web of intrigues like Iago does.
OW: What are the vocal challenges of this role and what is it like to begin the work with an aria so difficult as “Si puo?”
GG: It is not easy, of course, and one needs to have a very good technique. When only singing “Pagliacci” one has to warm up the voice very well. And when one has to sing Alfio on the same night one has to carefully portion one’s energy in order to have enough power left for the “Si può” and what comes after the prologue.
OW: You’re performing Alfio. How is the character different from Tonio? How are they similar and what are the differences vocally?
GG: Alfio isn’t a bad character, he just has to react when Santuzza tells him about Lola being unfaithful. He is by far not as malicious as Tonio is. At that time in Sicily, a man had to save face in such a situation as Alfio’s, and he doesn’t really have another option than challenging Turiddu to a duel. Alfio, before knowing about Lola’s affair with Turiddu, is a happy man, a successful businessman with a beautiful wife. Tonio is very unhappy right from the beginning.
OW: How do you pace yourself when singing two different operas from two distinct composers? What are the challenges of performing two different works in one night?
GG: Singing two roles in one night is a big challenge, but it also is a great way to show one’s versatility as an artist. I can show what I’m capable of doing as a singer and also as an actor. In “Pagliacci,” I can even show my comical side, as Taddeo in the play. For me, it is very rewarding and satisfying performing these two roles on one night!
OW: Later this season you turn to Barnaba in “La Gioconda.” Have you started studying the score yet? What attracts you to Ponchielli’s music?
GG: Yes, I’ve already begun studying the role. It is a difficult role with a challenging character. Another very evil person… Vocally it is a very rewarding role, with two great arias. I’m very much looking forward to this debut in Filippo Sanjust’s historical staging at the Deutsche Oper Berlin this coming June!
OW: Like Tonio, this is a morally ambiguous character. You tend to play a lot of these. You could even say Amonasro [from "Aida”] has some villainous qualities. what attracts you to these type of characters?
GG: For me, it is always important to look at the motives of these characters. Amonasro’s motives can be considered even noble, he is a king wanting to save his country and his people.
Barnaba doesn’t have any moral compass, in my opinion, he is a spy who does evil things every single day. He is a liar and brings misery to others. And he enjoys having power over others. For me, he has even got “Mefisto-like” qualities. Like a devil, he enjoys being powerful and being evil. In his aria “O monumento” he says “Most potent of all a king: the spy.”… He enjoys being a spy and having the power to destroy others.
OW: What is your process like when working on a new role? What do you do first?
GG: The very first thing I’m doing is studying the text, translating every word into my language, in order to understand every single word of what I’m singing. Then I’m studying the music and go to see my pianist to study the role with him.
OW: Finally what is the experience of performing at the Met and what makes it such a special place?
GG: I’ve always felt at home at the Metropolitan Opera. People are very warm and kind at the Met and I always return there with great pleasure. It is a great honor performing on this legendary stage where all the great singers of the past have sung, many of my all-time favorite singers and role models. One is always working on the highest level, with the very best conductors, singers, and stage directors which is a great joy. The Met is probably the opera house I’ve performed most often in my career. I made my debut in the 2008-09 season as Rigoletto, back then in Otto Schenk’s staging. And since then I’ve returned there every single season. Next season I’ll sing my 100th performance with the company. It really is a great honor and it makes me so happy. I love singing here!