Melinda Bargreen | 30 OCT 2023
Atlanta Opera audiences have a rare opportunity this November 4 – 12: the house debut of acclaimed baritone George Gagnidze, one of the opera world’s most acclaimed interpreters of the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto, in the upcoming production by The Atlanta Opera at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. This is a role Gagnidze has made his own over the past 18 years, following the performance that won him the first prize at a major competition in 2005.
“It was singing Rigoletto’s big scene, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata’ that I won the Concorso Voci Verdiane, which put me on the map,” Gagnidze explains in an email interview.
“Voci Verdiane, in English, ‘Verdi Voices,’ is an important competition for Verdi voices worldwide, and it takes place in Verdi’s hometown Busseto in Italy every year. So winning first prize was very important and opened many doors for me, including making my role debut as Rigoletto at the Verdi Festival in Parma in 2008.”
That “Concorso Voci Verdiane” competition led to another highly important connection for the baritone: conductor Lorin Maazel, music director of the Orchestra Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini, the orchestra of the competition. Gagnidze subsequently was invited to join a Japan tour with Maazel and this orchestra after winning the “Voci Verdiane.” Maazel soon became “a huge support for my career,” Gagnidze explains.
“He believed very strongly in me, and it was also thanks to him that I made my Teatro alla Scala debut in 2007 as Germont in La Traviata. He also invited me to sing my first Paolo Albiani and the title role of Simone Boccanegra in Valencia, so I sang quite some Verdi with him.”
It is his command of the title role in Rigoletto, however, that led to one of Gagnidze’s most important career developments: his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2009. He has sung Rigoletto there in two different productions (first by Otto Schenk, and later by Michael Mayer). Gagnidze’s Rigoletto has also been heard at the Teatro alla Scala, Los Angeles Opera, Dallas Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, and the Aix-en-Provence and Vienna Festwochen Festivals, totaling over 100 performances.
“So I can say this part has been fundamental for me,” Gagnidze explains. “For sure, it is one of my most important and favorite roles.”
Over time, Gagnidze observes, his interpretation of the role has deepened with experience.
“I have sung a lot of productions of Rigoletto in these past years, so my Rigoletto of 2023 is not the Rigoletto of 15 years ago,” he says. “I had many different inputs for this role, and every time singing the part is a bit different. This is valid for any character, not just for Rigoletto. As over the years you collaborate with different conductors, directors, and colleagues, you pick up something from everyone along the way that will inevitably enrich you and your vision of a certain character.”
The role’s considerable musical demands are matched by its emotional and interpretative challenges, Gagnidze observes. Sometimes the strong emotions of the title character are “almost overwhelming” for the singer who must convey them.
“The tessitura can be very high, especially in the first act,” Gagnidze says, “and requires great legato and noblesse in some moments, particularly the first act duet with Gilda.” At other points of the opera, however, Rigoletto’s vocal lines “come very close to declamation,” Gagnidze says.
“The risk is allowing oneself to be swept away too much by all those emotions and break what Italians call “la linea del canto”, the singing line. One must find a balance between expressing such intense feelings — and what could be for a parent more intense and agonizing than witnessing the kidnapping first and then the death of your own child? — while not being swept away by emotions.”
Those parental feelings have never been difficult for Gagnidze to harness: he also has a daughter, Maria, who is 21 now and who is also an aspiring young student soprano.
After many years of Rigoletto portrayals, and such extensive experience, is it challenging to listen to colleagues who may have very different ideas about how Rigoletto should be portrayed? Gagnidze says he keeps an open mind and tries to be flexible.
“I have my own opinion about the character, of course, but I am always very willing to listen to the stage directors’ and conductors’ ideas,” the baritone explains.
“After all, a performance is a collaborative effort, and I don’t believe in diva-like behaviors. As long as they explain to me effectively why they would like things to be done in a certain way, I am all ears. If I feel very strongly about something, I will certainly voice my opinion, but it is always possible to find compromises.”
Over the years, Gagnidze believes, it has actually gotten easier to sing Rigoletto.
“The voice is part of your body,” he explains. “A singer’s voice changes together with his or her body, and if this singer has been able to rely on a good technique, normally the change is for the better. All you have been through in your life does have an effect on your interpretation. It’s normal, and to be expected. It would be abnormal if my Rigoletto of today sounded and looked exactly like that of 15 years ago.”
Experience is also a great teacher. Gagnidze says that learning new roles has actually helped him resolve “certain passages” of roles already in his repertoire.
“So singing Rigoletto now feels much easier than 15 years ago, because I have so much more experience and can solve difficult passages differently than when I started to sing it. I have been working on legato, breath technique, and a certain roundness of my sound for all my career. Legato, for me, is the most important thing. Working constantly and seriously on the voice is something every singer should be doing, in my opinion, and this has also helped me to refine my Rigoletto over the years.”
What will The Atlanta Opera’s production of Rigoletto bring to the stage? Gagnidze promises an exciting show.
“Among the many Rigolettos I’ve performed in my career, Tomer Zvulun’s staging is one of the best and most compelling,” Gagnidze says.
“It’s one of my favorite productions of Rigoletto, and I’m sure the audience in Atlanta will be as excited about it as in Dallas and as we singers are about it. Tomer really knows how to grasp and comprehend the artists and manages to bring out the best from us on stage.
“What I particularly appreciate is Tomer’s precise work with the text. I have known him for many years; the first time we worked together was in 2009 at the new Luc Bondy Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera with James Levine conducting. And it was great to reunite for Tomer’s production of Rigoletto we also did together last year at the Dallas Opera. Now, compared to the run in Dallas, he has even added some more and new details that make the production even more compelling. I can’t say it is traditional in the sense that it takes place in 16th-century Mantua, but it is certainly very respectful of the dynamics among the various characters: their plights are the same, their pain is still real and tangible. I very much enjoyed performing this production last year in Dallas and I do believe it’s a highly effective and compelling one, where the protagonists are allowed to express every feeling Verdi conceived for them.” ■